HHS advances health info system

Health Level 7

In a step toward establishing an electronic health information system, the Department of Health and Human Services has signed an agreement to license and distribute a standardized medical vocabulary, Secretary Tommy Thompson announced today.

The department also has commissioned the National Academies of Science's Institute of Medicine to design a standardized model of an electronic health record and created a council to oversee the progress of a nation health information system.

"I really can't understand why grocery stores are more technologically advanced than hospitals," Thompson said at the National Health Information Infrastructure 2003 conference in Washington, D.C. "We have to develop a system that's on the cutting edge."

HHS officials this week signed an agreement with the College of American Pathologists to license the college's medical terminology known as the Systematized Nomenclature of Medicine. The National Library of Medicine, a component of the HHS' National Institutes of Health, has issued a five-year, $32.4 million contract to the college and will distribute the vocabulary to public health officials for free.

The agreement will allow health care providers, hospitals, insurance companies and research facilities to use the same terminology and incorporate that into an electronic system. The vocabulary includes more than 340,000 medical terms.

"This wonderful, groundbreaking agreement will benefit citizens by enabling providers in the health care community to communicate electronically with each other," Thompson said.

The Institute of Medicine will use Health Level 7 protocol — the key computer communication standard in the exchange of health care information — to create the electronic record model. HHS officials expect the model to be complete in 2004.

The movement toward an electronic health care system will reduce medical errors, which cost the country $17 billion to $29 billion a year, Thompson said. The system will cut down on information having to be manually entered and will provide ready access to a patient's medical history for a proper diagnosis, he said.

"Our doctors make more decisions in the exam room than pilots do landing a plane," he said. "We must give our health care professionals the tools they need to detect and prevent errors."

Thompson said the technology is available, but it's fragmented and slow. He said there should be incentives for the health care community to adopt these standards. He is also pushing Congress to allow HHS to use a portion of the money obtained through fraud and abuse cases to aid public health professionals with the costs of adoption.

"I look forward to a day not too far away when our 21st-century care is supported by 21st-entury systems," Thompson said.

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