Garrett: Revolutionizing health care

Massachusetts plans to convert to e-health records in the next five years

A year ago, President Bush called for the widespread adoption of interoperable electronic health records (EHRs) in the next 10 years as part of an effort to transform our health care system.

Many envision a system that is consumer-centric and information-rich, in which medical information follows the patient and information tools guide medical decisions. In such a system, the people who take care of us and our loved ones have appropriate access to complete medical and treatment histories and can order medications using computerized systems that eliminate handwriting errors and automatically check for doses that are too high or too low.

In 2004, the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology unveiled a strategic framework to meet the president's goal. To bring that framework to life, the office has issued the results from an extensive request-for- information exercise conducted across industry and has released four requests for proposals to develop the necessary systems. The goal is to bring EHRs into clinical practice to reduce medical errors and duplicative work, and let providers focus their efforts more directly on improving patient care.

Some successful models already exist. For example, Massachusetts is starting to revolutionize the health care system by building EHRs and connecting the health care community.

Last year, Gov. Mitt Romney unveiled an ambitious and aggressive plan to convert the majority of the state's medical records to electronic form in the next five years. When the project is complete, Massachusetts will be among the first states to establish a complete EHR program.

The Institute of Medicine estimates that as many as 98,000 Americans die each year from largely avoidable medical errors. Additionally, medication errors claim about 7,000 lives each year and are responsible for another 770,000 injuries. Other studies suggest that available technology can save as much as 30 percent in annual health care spending, which is a $1.7 trillion share of the gross domestic product.

Starting in 1998, a group of health care organizations in Massachusetts began quietly working together to use IT to fix some of those administrative inefficiencies.

The New England Health Care EDI Network (NEHEN) helps its participants conduct business electronically using communications standards identified in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, a federal law co-sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Through the NEHEN initiative, 20 of the 25 largest hospitals and more than half of the hospitals in Massachusetts use this open and shared technology to automate administrative processes and build efficiencies across their organizations.

In 2003, Massachusetts Simplifying Healthcare Among Regional Entities (MA-SHARE) was formed, adding more organizations and funding to the transformation effort. As a regional collaborative run by the Massachusetts Health Data Consortium, it promotes the exchange of health information among organizations through the use of IT, standards and administrative simplification. Together, leaders from industry, MA-SHARE and the governor's office are dedicated to working together to deliver on the promise of EHRs.

Garrett is vice president and managing partner in Computer Sciences Corp.'s Global Health Solutions unit. CSC provides strategic planning and technical development for NEHEN and MA-SHARE.

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