HHS gathers health data for Katrina evacuees

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.

HHS and other agencies are working with health insurers, pharmacy benefit managers, drugstore chains and other sources to locate people's records and make them available to doctors working at shelters and elsewhere, said Dr. David Brailer, the national health information technology coordinator, speaking last week at the Health IT Summit in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the eHealth Initiative.

"We think we can be very specific about at least the current meds that people are taking," he told reporters after his speech.

Agencies involved in the effort are the Office of the National Coordinator of Health IT and eight others, including parts of HHS and the Defense, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security departments.

Until now, the lack of medical records, such as prescriptions, has hampered medical personnel working at makeshift hospitals in the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast and at facilities in cities caring for Katrina evacuees, HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt told conference attendees.

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

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

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 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 refugees with chronic medical conditions, such as cancer, not getting the treatment they need because of a lack of medical records.

Cerise, who spoke to conference attendees via speakerphone from his office in Baton Rouge, La., said he is working with members of the eHealth Initiative and government agencies to electronically re-create patient records.

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