Face it: Nearly every aspect of our lives is controlled by electronics. We shop, pay bills, bank and plan vacations electronically. Why, then, do all healthcare providers not have immediate electronic access to their patients' health records? If the American Health Information Community commissioners, recently appointed by Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, have their way, most Americans will be using interoperable electronic health records within 10 years--if not sooner. Patients, doctors, hospitals and insurance companies will have access to vital and confidentiality-protected medical information immediately, helping to reduce medical errors, improve quality, lower costs and streamline paperwork.
The critical importance of instant access to records came to light immediately after Hurricane Katrina, when doctors who treated patients at evacuation shelters had little knowledge of past treatment or medications. Fortunately, HHS, working with private providers, was able to construct a database of prescription histories from five of the area's largest chain drugstores serving 150 ZIP codes, which covered nearly 80% of the evacuees.
A major priority for the committee, says Secretary Leavitt, is to develop a system of biosurveillance that would allow accelerated reporting of public-health incidents related to bioterrorism, pandemic flu or other public-health threats. AHIC's short-term goal, according to John Loonsk of HHS's Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, is to develop a standardized way to transmit lab results and emergency department data in less than one day across cities with monitoring systems in place. No conclusions had been reached about what data would be compiled, how individuals’ privacy could be protected in the process and which healthcare providers would be required to collect the data.
According to a report in Federal Computer Week, as of December 2005, only 27 states had a disease-tracking system in place to collect and monitor data electronically--among them Missouri, New York, North Carolina and Texas. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working to develop programs and projects like the BioSense disease surveillance system that will act as a starting point for identifying pandemic threats. BioSense pulls disease diagnosis data from emergency departments into a central CDC repository using secure Internet connections. By the end of the year, the CDC hopes to link EDs in 30 cities to the system, which will collect data that includes information on medical complaints, such as fevers or respiratory infections, that could indicate an avian flu outbreak.
For more information on AHIC's charter, meeting transcripts and electronic health recordkeeping, see the following sites: