Electronic Records Could Save Lives in Emergencies
Last week's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon may lead to a greater push in the health care community for increased use of electronic medical records that could "help save lives" by "instantly supply[ing] a person's blood type, allergies and past treatments" over the Internet, the Wall Street Journal reports. According to C. Peter Waegemann, executive director of the private Medical Records Institute, electronic medical records would allow doctors providing "immediate trauma treatment" to a sudden influx of patients to obtain information about them quickly. These records, including dental histories, also could make it easier to identify people who die in emergencies. John Halamka, chief information technology officer at Boston's Care Group hospital system, said, "In a mass casualty system, we need to be able to rapidly access information. We don't have the time or luxury of taking a medical history."
Before electronic records become pervasive, the health care system must overcome many obstacles, the Journal reports. According to the Medical Records Institute, only 5% to 10% of U.S. providers currently use paperless record systems, and the financial difficulties faced by hospitals nationwide largely preclude them from investing in new technology. Hospital information systems sometimes are not equipped to share data within their own internal departments -- "let alone with other hospital systems." And individual physicians who keep electronic records generally do not include data from specialists. Patient privacy concerns also complicate the use of electronic records, as new federal rules set to go into effect in 2003, which establish comprehensive standards on medical data use and other privacy issues, have made hospitals wary about any possible breaches of privacy. Joy Pritts, senior counsel at the Health Privacy Project at Georgetown University, said that the new rules make exceptions for the use of patient data in emergencies. "Whether it be the situation of mass casualties or an individual in a car accident, the regulations recognize that there are times when doctors need access to health information immediately to treat a patient."
While widespread use of electronic records in the near future remains unlikely, several government advisory groups are looking for ways to create a "national health-data network" through which patients could voluntarily submit their medical records to a secure Web site. Such a network could enhance treatment of individuals and "could also identify clusters of health problems and provide an early-warning system for outbreaks of serious illness," the Journal reports. In addition, the CDC is developing programs that could be used in emergencies to link emergency rooms and public health departments through the Internet (Landro, Wall Street Journal, 9/21).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.