Congress will not only be taking a major step forward in health care reform by agreeing to accelerate the computerization of patient medical records, but it will also be taking action toward creating an overall smarter ecosystem for health care delivery.
Technology alone will not solve the myriad of problems in our health care system; however, the ultimate value of developing a fully functioning digital backbone is the ability to interconnect doctors, hospitals, patients and other essential elements for delivering effective care. A digital backbone will give primary care doctors an essential tool to function in their vital role as the first line of defense against major illness. The ability to exchange information quickly can help reduce medical errors and administrative costs, and improve patient-doctor communication.
According to research by the independent Commonwealth Foundation, the rate of medical error in the U.S. is higher than in seven other industrialized countries, including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand. One-third of U.S. patients report being given the wrong medication or dosage; experiencing a medical error or delays in receiving abnormal test results; or receiving incorrect test results.
Today we use more advanced technology to listen to music on MP3 players than to keep track of the medical records that save lives. When we need to withdraw cash from our bank accounts, we can use an ATM card anywhere in the world, but when a specialist needs our medical histories, those records are usually tucked away in a paper file in our primary care doctors office.
The U.S. health care system, renowned for its highly advanced medical equipment used for complex surgeries and treatments, can no longer rely on traditional paper systems for crucial patient information. Today more than three-quarters of primary care physicians in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand use electronic medical record systems. According to a 2008 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics, only 38 percent of U.S. physicians report using full or partial EMR systems. Twenty percent report using systems with basic functions, such as viewing lab tests and ordering prescriptions. More advanced features, such as warnings for drug interactions and out-of-range test results, are not in widespread use.
There is little benefit in merely converting individual doctors offices from paper to computer. For substantial benefits to the entire health care ecosystem, electronic medical records must meet interoperability standards so that information can be exchanged and shared. Recent federally funded demonstration projects, including those by MedVirginia and the North Carolina Healthcare Information and Communications Alliance Inc., in which IBM participated, show that health care data can be standardized and shared across a network while protecting patient privacy. In these tests, physicians were able to securely access patients medical records, lab results and prescription lists. The technology is proven. Funding is what is needed now to modernize our health care infrastructure.
By investing in health care IT, we will also create new jobs at a time when our economy needs them. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation estimates that a one-year investment of $10 billion in health care IT would create as many as 212,000 new jobs in the U.S.
More important is the effect that IT investment will have on the care provided to individual patients. With electronic records, primary care doctors will have the knowledge that they need about each patient to make treatment most effective and to coordinate care with specialists, hospitals and the patients themselves. A one-year pilot study by Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania tracked results of a newly designed delivery system, which emphasizes quick access to care, access to electronic health records by both patient and doctor, as well as the availability of care coordinators and home monitoring systems. This model reduced hospital admissions by 20 percent and saved 7 percent in overall medical costs.
By focusing on primary care, we can move U.S. health care toward a system that promotes wellness and prevention and away from its current emphasis on the treatment of illness. Chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, account for the majority of health care spending in the U.S. We wont see the end to spiraling costs until we are able to prevent chronic illnesses and help those with chronic illnesses better manage their health.
By deploying electronic health records for all Americans, we will also help spur new investments and create more new jobs in related areas, such as medical research, drug discovery and evaluation, and home medical monitoring.
In the years ahead, the U.S. health system faces the increased demands of caring for an aging population, which is likely to further stretch limited resources. At the same time, public health experts predict that the high instances of obesity among Americans will lead to increased levels of chronic illness. We will need a vastly smarter health care system to be able to handle these heavy demands and to see improvements in costs, patient outcomes and overall quality of life in the U.S.
Christopher G. Caine is vice president of governmental programs at IBM.