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In a landmark government effort to drive American health care into the information age, the February 2009 stimulus bill earmarked about $30 billion in incentives for doctors and hospitals who install electronic medical records—paying up to $63,750 to individual physicians and millions to hospitals.

Now comes the tough part: implementing “EMRs” and proving they really can reduce medical errors or get doctors to keep better track of chronically ill people. As National Coordinator for Health IT, Farzad Mostashari oversees federal efforts to promote adoption of EMRs and to prod reluctant hospitals to share patient data.

Mostashari was recruited to take over the federal effort in February, after leading a patient-records initiative as an assistant health commissioner in New York City. He spoke with Technology Review’s chief correspondent, David Talbot, about when we’ll start seeing evidence that the technology is working.

TR: What problems are we attacking with this huge medical IT outlay? 

Mostashari: Start with “First, do no harm.” Right now we do harm to patients through health care. The estimates, conservatively, are 100,000 to 200,000 people killed each year by things like hospital-acquired infections and adverse drug events. Electronic medical records provide an opportunity to create standardized protocols, to provide decision support and reminders for doctors, and to tell them about the patient’s medications and drug allergies, as well as any dangerous drug interactions, at the point of care. Those are all proven interventions.

What else can software do besides cut back on accidental hospital deaths?

All too often, people come into the doctor’s office with high blood pressure which will kill them from stroke or heart attack, but the patient is complaining about something else. Doctors can get distracted and not pay attention to the most important thing—which might be that the patient’s blood pressure is out of control, or the flu shot that hasn’t been given. Electronic records can make it easy to provide these reminders. It can also make a list of patients who have not come in, who have high blood pressure or diabetes, and must be seen.

Why is the health-care industry so far behind other industries?

Unfortunately, the business case often has not been strong enough to support adoption and use of electronic records.  But we have now reached a point where the incentives are turning the other way—with greater emphasis on paying for outcomes and value rather than volume.

Bring us up to date since February 2009, when the bill passed. What is the progress to date on getting the IT installed?

The ice has broken after decades of talk. Back in 2009, only 10 percent of hospitals and 20 percent of primary-care providers used basic EMRs. Within a year, the doctors went from 20 percent to 30 percent. I expect it to get to 40 percent this year. We have about 10,000 new providers a month registering for incentives. About $400 million has gone out in payments already, and is expected to hit the $1 billion mark by early 2012.

But this is more than installing software—it’s about a concept called “meaningful use.” The health IT incentive payments are predicated on very specific criteria. For example, the electronic health record must contain blood pressure readings, height and weight, lab data, the patient’s problem list, and allergies; the patients’ preferred language will be recorded; and the system must have a whole series of functionalities around sharing information with patients and public health agencies.

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Credit: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services

Tagged: Business, Business Impact, The Era of E-Medicine

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