Leavitt: Katrina demonstrates need for e-health records

Outdated hospital bed system hampers Katrina relief effort

The majority of the one million people displaced by Hurricane Katrina have no medical records, making it difficult for clinicians working in disaster medical centers to treat them, Mike Leavitt, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, told the eHealth Initiative conference today.

“If there was ever a case for [electronic health records], this disaster underscores the need,” Leavitt said.

Medical personnel working at makeshift hospitals in the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast and at facilities in cities caring for Katrina refugees are handicapped by the lack of medical records, including medications prescribed to former Gulf Coast residents now scattered at shelters nationwide, Leavitt said.

With paper records destroyed or unavailable, Leavitt said doctors have no idea what drugs Katrina refugees are taking.

Leavitt said that in one instance, a patient he visited earlier this week who left home with a variety of pills could not help clinicians come up with a match for those prescriptions from the pills. That’s because extreme heat in the New Orleans Superdome, which housed 25,000 refugees for five days, had fused the drugs together, he said.

Although some medical experts have warned of catastrophic medical events following Katrina, such as an outbreak of West Nile Virus, Dr. Frederick Cerise, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, said he was more concerned about refuges with chronic medical conditions such as cancer not getting the treatment they need because of a lack of medical records.

Cerise, who spoke to the conference via speakerphone from his office in Baton Rouge, La., said he is working with members of the eHealth Initiative, insurers, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and Dr. David Brailer, national coordinator for health information technology at HHS, to electronically re-create patient records.

For example, payment information held by insurers and CMS could help zero in on prescribed medications and lab tests ordered, though not the results of those tests, Cerise said.

Francois de Brantes, the health care initiatives program leader for General Electric’s Corporate Health Care and Medical Services, said the difference between electronic and paper health records after Katrina was best illustrated by the time it took to transfer records for patients in Veterans Affairs Department hospitals in the Gulf Coast compared with the records of patients in private hospitals.

It took the VA about 100 hours to transfer electronic health records for its all patients in the South, while it will take thousands of hours for the private sector to reconstitute paper medical records, de Brantes said.

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