By: Hannah Clark for Medtech1
Politicians ranging from President George W. Bush to New York Senator Hillary Clinton have touted digital medical records as a way to save both money and lives.
But electronic medical records are still years away from reality, partly because of the huge initial investment the system will require. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts is planning to spend $50 million to set up an electronic medical database in only three Massachusetts cities. According to the New York Times, outfitting the whole country with digital records could cost $276 billion.
The savings of a digital system, once in place, will be substantial. A study in the journal Health Affairs said electronic records could save $80 billion a year.
Dr. Randy Russell of Lake Village, Ark., told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he spent $90,000 to convert his office to a digital records system. But he expects to recoup the costs within four years, because he’ll cut fax lines, buy fewer office supplies, and save money on transcription.
Electronic medical records can also improve care, by alerting doctors to medical risks. If patient has a family history of cancer, for example, a digital record would alert the physician, who could then conduct the appropriate screenings and tests.
But the start-up costs will be prohibitive for many independent doctors and struggling hospitals, particularly in rural areas.
And the $80 billion savings depends on hospitals using standardized software across the country. When Dr. Russell started researching digital records, he had 300 software vendors to choose from. If medical offices go digital one by one, the result could be a patchwork of software programs that may or may not be compatible with each other. In that case, the Health Affairs study says savings would drop to $24 billion a year.
Protecting patients’ privacy is another important concern. On Jan. 18, a task force on digital medical records gave the Bush administration a road map for switching to digital health records. The task force recommended against “health ID cards” and said patients should control how their records are used.
But the Health Privacy Project, a non-profit advocacy organization, says the task force didn’t go far enough, “There is no faster way to jeopardize the success of a national health information network than to forgo a comprehensive and thoughtful application of protecting individually-identifiable health information,” the organization said in a statement.