The changes wrought by the advent of the digital world can be challenging, but the advantages are usually worth the trouble, and then some. Nowhere is that dichotomy more accurate than in the health care industry.
The switch to electronic medical records is a daunting and expensive proposition for health professionals, but the efficiencies and improvements in health outcomes are undeniable. In any case, the world is going digital and the health care industry cannot afford to be the odd man out. This change is inevitable.
One of the most promising digital developments in Western New York health care is HEALTHeLINK, a health information exchange that is designed to improve patient outcomes while controlling costs. It recently conducted an analysis that provides compelling evidence of the benefits of shared electronic medical information.
In an 18-month study, the exchange looked at the number of multiple CT scans ordered for the same body part, for the same patient, over a six-month period. During that period, 2,763 CT scans were deemed to be potentially unnecessary, duplicative tests. Tellingly, 90 percent of the potentially duplicative tests were ordered by physicians who never or infrequently used HEALTHeLINK.
By HEALTHeLINK’s calculations, that amounts to a potential additional cost of $1.3 million – and that’s just over one six-month period for one test in one region of the country. The amount of wasted health care dollars in CT scans alone looks to be staggering, based on these figures. And the electronic sharing of health information appears to be a primary solution to the problem.
The benefits of electronic records are not limited to that, though. Electronic prescriptions help to avoid dispensing errors that can be life-threatening. Shared information can prevent successful doctor-shopping by those who are addicted to painkillers or those who sell the pills to addicts.
As with all changes, there are risks. As Americans have learned over and over again, electronic records need to be well-protected. Two recent high-profile incidents make the case well. Eric Snowden used relatively inexpensive software to “scrape” data from the National Security Agency, pilfering a massive amount of the country’s most sensitive classified documents.
And during the just-ended holiday shopping season, security breaches at Target and Neiman Marcus compromised the accounts of tens of millions of shoppers.
The potential for trouble in those cases is severe, and so it is with the health information of consumers. Indeed, health information is considered so private that a federal law, known as HIPAA, restricts what health professionals can reveal about their patients’ medical status.
A couple of examples make the point: A woman may not want her pregnancy revealed to others, including her employer, until necessary. A person with HIV or AIDS may not want to disclose his condition for fear of discrimination.
HEALTHeLINK has in place a security system that, from the little its leaders are willing to say about it, appears to be robust. But computer users know the drill. Hackers are always looking for new ways to penetrate security, so that security needs to be constantly updated. The job requires vigilance, because any breach will jeopardize the promise that electronic medical record-keeping holds.