Health IT to help with care for Katrina victims

By next week, Department of Health and Human Services officials hope to make some elements of patients' medical records available to doctors treating people from the Gulf Coast areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

The Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology (ONCHIT) and eight other agencies, including parts of HHS and the departments of Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security, are working to obtain medication histories and other records of the care given before the hurricane struck.

Dr. David Brailer, the national coordinator, told a conference audience in Washington, D.C., that his office is working with other disaster responders on long- and short-term ways to apply health IT to help people affected by the storm.

"Health IT saves lives," he said. "The health IT community has a lot to contribute to what's happening."

In the short term, Brailer said, the agencies are working with health plans, pharmacy benefit managers, drugstore chains and other sources to locate people’s records and make them available to doctors working at shelters and elsewhere.

"We think we can be very specific about at least the current meds that people are taking," he told reporters after his speech to the Health IT Summit sponsored by the eHealth Initiative.

However, Brailer said, before health records are distributed there must be safeguards to ensure that only authorized individuals who are legitimate care-givers see the information.

In the longer term, he said, his office wants to establish a virtual regional health information organization in the affected area.

"I want to see a digital health information infrastructure happen for the people of the Gulf Coast," Brailer said. "We can deliver personal health records that move with [the patients] as they go through care."

Such a regional health records exchange would demonstrate the value of health IT and "would make the lives of the people much safer," he said. "We have to rebuild an entire preventative apparatus."

Brailer emphasized the importance of electronic records. "What we have been working on as a community is not an abstraction," he said.

The need for portable records is evident because some evacuees have moved three or more times, Brailer said. "We have lost the medical records infrastructure" in New Orleans and nearby areas, he said. "It's gone."

Paper records were stored in basements and cannot be recovered, he said. People are suffering because the storm interrupted their medications and other treatments. He mentioned cancer patients who could not receive chemotherapy and diabetics who are in comas because they could not get insulin.

When the victims get medical attention, a lack of information about the patients' conditions and histories hampers doctors. Physicians are trying to treat patients they have never seen before who cannot recall precisely what medications they were taking or are unable to speak with the doctors, Brailer said.

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