Public-private partnership unveils e-health prototype

Technology has the potential to improve health care and safety while reducing costs, lawmaker says.

As two House panels on Thursday focused on efforts to drive the adoption of health information technology, a public-private partnership unveiled its own e-health network prototype already in use in three U.S. communities.

Greater use of information technology has the potential to improve health care and safety while reducing costs, redundant testing and duplicative administrative procedures, said House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairwoman Nancy Johnson, R-Conn. Still, the adoption of health IT has been slow, she said.

David Brailer, who heads the health IT office at the Health and Human Services Department, said progress is being made at the federal level to develop a nationwide e-health infrastructure.

On May 16, the American Health Information Community, a multi-stakeholder workgroup, will present recommendations aimed at developing a bio-surveillance data-sharing system, an electronic registration form and medication history for patients, remote communications options for doctors and patients, and e-health records that include laboratory results.

Furthermore, Brailer said uniform health IT standards will be announced in May, while final criteria for certifying e-health records are expected this month. Proposals for the requirements of a health information infrastructure are expected in June, and best practices for privacy and security policies, which are currently under review, are due in early 2007, he said.

In a House Small Business Regulatory Reform and Oversight Subcommittee, lawmakers questioned whether small healthcare groups could afford to adopt technology that enables the exchange of e-medical records.

"Because many small businesses operate on slim margins, any increase in cost can turn a profitable business into an unprofitable one," subcommittee Chairman Todd Akin, R-Mo., said in his opening statement. The hearing focused on the potential economic benefits that could be derived through the adoption of new technologies.

"Our research shows few physicians have implemented electronic health-record technology because it requires resources not typically found in small physician practices," said Joan Magruder, vice president of business development at BJC HealthCare in St. Louis. The BJG Medical Group includes more than 200 participating physicians.

Magruder said the one-time cost for a doctor's office to transform from a paper-based record system to an electronic one ranges from $30,000 to $45,000. To accelerate the adoption of health IT among its participants, the medical group will underwrite a one-time implementation cost if the doctors purchase the needed equipment.

Connecting for Health, a collaborative of 100 public and private organizations, released its framework for building a health information network capable of sharing e-medical data. The framework, which includes 16 technical and policy components, is available for free online. The documents include testing interfaces, code, technical specifications, and model privacy and security policies.

The system uses a service that identifies where specific medical records are kept but does not identify individuals. Under that approach, information is stored locally by doctors or hospitals and shared when authorized by patients.

Three communities that operate on different health information networks in Boston, Indianapolis, and Mendocino County, Calif., began testing the prototype in mid-2005.