Gingrich: 'Paper kills,' electronic medical records save lives

"Brailer: Health IT vision takes shape"

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Hurricane Katrina has been the loudest wake-up call so far for the need for electronic health records (EHRs), according to some prominent policy figures. Floods from the storm erased the medical records of many people in the central Gulf Coast because they were written on paper and stored in boxes in hospitals and physicians’ offices.

Dr. David Brailer, national coordinator for health information technology at the Department of Health and Human Services, said EHRs will now be a part of all crisis response plans.

“There was never a health IT component of the disaster recovery plan...but there will be,” he said yesterday at a conference that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s National Chamber Foundation hosted.

Brailer described the revelation that electronic medical files save lives as "intraocular," a term, he said, "for something so obvious it hits you between the eyes."

This week, the federal government began a pilot test of an EHR database with at least partial information for 80 percent of the population in the hurricane-affected areas.

“We don’t want people to be saved, taken to a shelter and then face the risk of death because doctors don’t know what’s going on with them,” Brailer said.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich used stark words to drive home the message.

“Paper kills,” he said. “Paper records are an utterly irrational national security risk.”

Gingrich is the founder of the Center for Health Transformation, a public/private partnership trying to push technological reforms into the health care system.

“I hope we will never have a more vivid, more explicit case study in the need to have electronic health records now,” he said, adding that it is financially and morally wrong for America to not have electronic medical files.

Gingrich acknowledged that privacy is a legitimate and significant concern in implementing a nationwide system, calling on Congress to pass legislation that would protect citizens’ personal information.

He said laws should impose the heaviest penalties to thwart employers and insurance companies from viewing patients’ DNA records and medical histories.

It should be a felony for members of the press, employers or hackers to access any of the information, Gingrich said.

Also, he would make EHRs voluntary as a privacy measure.

“No coercion,” Gingrich said. “If you would rather risk death by a paper prescription, but you’d feel really secure, then that’s fine. I’m all for American freedom.”

But he said he would like the government to replace the phrase “electronic health record” with “personal health knowledge system." Health IT should be a dynamic system that makes use of access to information, not simply passive records, he said.

“I believe that, with the lesson of Katrina, there is zero excuse for not doing something,” he said. Considering the likelihood of terrorism, another hurricane or a pandemic illness such as avian flu, “we are risking a lot of American lives if we don’t do something.”

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