IT revolution threatened for US health service

Electronic records, the works

The US department of Heath and Human Services (HSS) has published an 10-year plan to revamp the healthcare system.

The great news for Americans is that the plans include the introduction of electronic health records (long-touted in the UK as the solution to everything that is wrong with the NHS); a network linking all these records together; and a bill for as much as$10bn.

HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said that electronic health information will "provide a quantum leap in patient power, doctor power, and effective health care".

He also promised better patient access to records, through an Internet portal, and said that Medicare would accelerate regulations for electronic prescriptions.

Electronic Heath Records (EHR), just like the UK’s Electronic Care Records (ECR), will revolutionise the way healthcare is delivered, Thompson says. Firstly, they will save money – potentially reducing the health bill by 10 per cent. Next, they will improve privacy, decrease medical errors, provide better protection of medical records all at the same time as reducing administrative costs.

Britain has claimed all these things about the introduction of ECR. It would be fair to say the medical community has not responded universally positively. Although there are some readily apparent benefits to digitising health records, there are concerns about implementation. GPs in particular complain that they have not been consulted about the plans; and many NHS staff, and security specialists have serious concerns about the effect that centralised electronic records will have on patient confidentiality.

Already, observers in the US have expressed doubts, if only about the financial implications. In an article on ComputerWorld Mike Kappel, senior vice president of strategic planning at San Franciscan health care IT vendor McKesson, warns that the cost of implementing the system is likely to be pushed out to doctors and hospitals. He says the cost of the system could easily reach $10bn, and contrasts this with the government budget for healthcare IT: $50m this year and $100m the next. ®

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