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

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 recently at a conference that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's National Chamber Foundation hosted.

Brailer said the revelation that electronic medical files save lives is "something so obvious it hits you between the eyes."

Earlier this month, the federal government started testing 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 emphasized that 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 in the health care system.

"I hope we will never have a more vivid, more explicit case study in the need" to have EHRs, he said, adding that the absence of electronic medical files is a financial and moral failure.

Gingrich said privacy is a legitimate and significant concern in implementing a nationwide system. He called on Congress to pass legislation that would protect citizens' personal information. Strict laws should deter employers and insurance companies from viewing patients' DNA records and medical histories, he said.

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

He added that as an additional privacy measure, EHRs should be voluntary.

There should be 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 uses available information, not simply passive records, he said.

"I believe that, with the lesson of Katrina, there is zero excuse for not doing something," Gingrich 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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