With a vision to cut health care costs, President Obama has proposed a massive modernization drive to digitize all health records within the next five years. What this means is eventually, the country will see all clinics and hospitals storing patient records in electronic form that will be easy to transfer and share.
This is great news for everyone. The most immediate benefit is a better managed doctor’s office – fewer files, less clutter, proper maintenance of medical records and consequently much less human error in tackling medical cases.
The next obvious benefit is a huge cost saving coming from the system’s ability to allow records to be shared across hospitals. This eliminates the need to repeat expensive examinations and tests.
For instance, a few months ago I rushed into emergency care for severe pain from shoulder bursitis. The ER doctor ran several tests to analyze the source of the inflammation to make the diagnosis. The ER’s lab was to take 7-8 days to get back with some of the tests results. I was released with some pain medication and asked to follow up with my family physician. Next day at my family physician’s hospital, my doctor ordered the same blood tests again because their lab could get the results within 2 days and an expedited result would help diagnosis. So we repeated 4 tests and I ended up paying an additional $200 for retesting! Needless to say, my insurance company also paid up their share. Had the hospitals been able to communicate before ordering the tests, they could have more efficiently scheduled the tests and avoided the wasteful expenses.
It is not clear how often such unnecessary retests are performed, but one can reasonably expect that health problems involving multiple specialists and hospitals are likely to be penalized. Obama’s health care plan is a perfect solution to this problem. As CNN reports, the former National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, Dr. David Brailer, expects $200 billion to $300 billion in cost savings each year once the system is fully operational.
Perhaps the least obvious but greatest benefit from this plan is the availability of an enormous amount of patient data that can help assess the efficacy of treatment programs and enhance the quality of life for patients. Some health care companies have such systems in a nascent stage to examine from such data how different treatment programs fare across races, age groups and other demographic profiles to evolve better and more personalized treatment plans for life threatening problems like end stage cancer, etc.
Another benefit in the near term is the potential of creating a large number of high-end IT jobs geared towards the health care industry. This much needed boost to the economy is expected to generate over 200,000 new jobs according to CNN.
But the ambitious plan comes with several hurdles. Firstly physicians and hospitals need to get trained to use an electronic system. The cost of equipment (computer, communication network, etc.) and training can be substantial. Perhaps implementing some special tax breaks intended for hospitals may help offset these costs.
Furthermore, implementing HIPAA for privacy of patient information over a widely spread network is another challenge. Building a secure network robust against hackers is a difficult problem in itself. But the silver lining is that with Massachusetts already moving in the direction of implementing a pilot program, such a system may not be beyond our reach. If Obama can get it implemented as envisioned, it will be one of the greatest achievements for his administration for it will be a big stimulus to our health care and economy.