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Paperless medical records touted

Thu., April 14, 2005, midnight

Putting technology in place that lets hospitals, clinics, insurers and medical specialists share data solely through electronic connections could save about $80 billion yearly in U.S. health care costs, a medical services analyst said Wednesday in Spokane.

Speaking to the annual Inland Northwest Health Services’ Northwest Medical Informatics Symposium, taking place in downtown Spokane through Friday, analyst Davis Bu laid out the benefits of widespread adoption of paperless medical records and “interoperable” systems.

Bu is a medical doctor and senior analyst at the Center for Information Technology Leadership, a nonprofit health-services consulting group based in Wellesley, Mass. He also teaches at Harvard Medical School.

The annual INHS medical informatics meeting draws health-care professionals from around the Northwest. Wednesday’s sessions drew about 300 people.

Moving toward a paperless patient medical record system would save lives, reduce treatment errors and eliminate redundant paperwork and testing, Bu told a group during Wednesday’s opening session of the symposium.

The term interoperability refers to the use of standardized electronic medical records that can be easily shared among organizations, providers and government agencies.

Research suggests nearly 90 percent of health-care transactions in the United States go through phone, fax or standard mail. That inefficiency creates significant costs plus numerous medical errors in transcription or treatment, Bu said.

The Bush administration has adopted a 2014 target date for transferring most medical data to electronic form. That deadline is not compulsory. One of the first areas of focus is a move toward electronic drug prescriptions, said Bu.

The CITL study, prepared earlier this year and now available online, suggests that providers — clinics, doctors and hospitals — might save as much as $33 billion per year if electronic patient records were widely used.

Another $44 billion in annual savings would be felt by insurers and consumers, the CITL study concluded.

Those figures all are projected to occur in roughly 11 years if the U.S. health care system invests about $330 billion in new technology and in standardized record gathering.

A lesser investment over that same period would reap smaller but still significant returns, Bu said.

If widespread interoperability were adopted, the CITL study said $31 billion per year would be saved solely through eliminating unneeded medical tests and cutting administrative costs involved in those tests.

The CITL study, in fact, estimated that interoperability would lead to saving about $87.81 per person per year, simply from eliminating unneeded medical tests.

Bu said moving in that direction provides not just more efficiency but better health care. It could help reduce the 23 million adverse drug effects and 500,000 life-threatening treatment errors that occur annually, he said.

Another benefit of interoperability would be improved public health monitoring, Bu said. The CITL study said a more efficient, automated system of reporting vital statistics would improve detection of emerging disease outbreaks and possible bioterror threats.


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