Health records on-line

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(HOST) Commentator Mary Barrosse Schwartz says it may be time to get on line for electronic health records.

(BARROSSE) For many Vermonters, the Internet provides services that we could never have imagined even a couple of years ago. We buy holiday gifts, check our bank balances, and pay our bills. On vacation in Florida, we can even listen to VPR.

But here in Vermont we’re behind the curve in using our computers to access our own electronic health records, including using the internet to schedule our own appointments with health care providers. A survey conducted by the Bi-State Primary Care Association, which covers Vermont and New Hampshire, found that only 24 percent of medical practices in Vermont have begun using computers to manage patient records.

Supporters of making the switch say computerized records could make for better health care delivered less expensively.

Specialist doctors would be able to get quick access to the full range of a patient’s health records, gaining a fuller understanding of the patient and guarding against bad outcomes through drug interactions. Electronic health records become portable and go with patient wherever they go, adding convenience and significantly reducing medical errors.

There are cost savings in no longer having to have medical office staff manage wall to wall shelves of patient charts, filing lab tests and physician notes, and then retrieving paper charts as needed. This is no small task, and delay in filing important information such as lab tests can result in poor medical care, especially when a physician sees a chart that due to improper filing just doesn’t tell the whole story.

Hospitals and medical practices can monitor chronic care or public health issues affecting large numbers of patients – for example, notices of flu shot clinics could be automatically sent to those with chronic respiratory disease and the elderly.

But new systems of computerized health records will be very expensive – the estimated cost for Vermont is $150 million.

Some critics of computerized health records also have privacy concerns. Vermont’s ACLU reminds us that medical records are very personal, and warns against giving up our privacy for some increased convenience and efficiency. Other health care planners in the state raise questions such as who should govern the network and who will own the data it contains?

Vermont hospitals have recently received grants from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a division of the US Agency of Health and Human Services, to explore the use of electronic health records. The goals of one project are to reduce medical errors, improve the quality of patient care, increase patient satisfaction, and lower costs. If we can make that kind of difference in Vermont’s system of health care, then the short term costs may be more than offset by long term gains. We should do our best to tackle the questions now and move forward.

In East Dorset, this is Mary Barrosse Schwartz.

Mary Barosse Schwartz is Executive Director of the Child Care Fund of Vermont. She spoke from our studio at Burr and Burton Academy in Manchester.

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