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Health IT: Just What the Doctor Ordered?

By Mary Agnes Carey, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

October 26, 2007 -- A new report released Friday urges Congress to take several steps to help increase the use of health care information technology (IT) among health care providers and their patients.

The study, prepared by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, states that Congress should pass legislation to promote the use of electronic health records and national health data standards, as well as create a legal framework for health record data banks. Lawmakers should also leverage federal resources to ensure access to health record data banks and require medical practices to disclose patient health information electronically upon request, the report concludes.

Legislation that would provide new leadership, funding, and organization at the national level to promote health information technology include a bill (S 1693) co-sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass, and Sen Michael B. Enzi, R-Wyo., and a House measure (HR 3800) sponsored by Anna G. Eshoo, D-Calif., the report states.

The findings, presented during a forum held with the group Health IT Now!, a coalition whose membership includes the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the National Association of Manufacturers, and other health care and business groups, noted that both the federal government and private industry have a role to play in the adoption of health information technology and electronic health records. Barriers to greater use of both of these items include providers' reluctance to make long-term investments in such technology because they do not often reap the benefits of it. Medical privacy advocates have also expressed concern that existing patient privacy protections are insufficient, the report notes.

In a related development, the top official for the nation's Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans has asked Congress to require physicians to use electronic prescribing in Medicare by 2010.

Some new funding for health information technology is included in legislation (HR 3043) the Senate passed earlier this week which provides fiscal 2008 funding for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education, and for some independent agencies such as the Social Security Administration. The Labor-HHS measure includes about $61 million to fund the Office of National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, with about $13.3 million coming from the Department of Health and Human Services, and $48 million funded under a separate account under the Public Health Service Act.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Capitol Hill, Blue Cross and Blue Shield president and CEO Scott P. Serota said that the "e-prescribing" would improve health care quality and safety for Medicare beneficiaries and should be included in any Medicare package lawmakers produced this year, with an exemption for small providers with fewer than 10 full-time employees.

Serota wrote that electronic prescribing can reduce preventable medication errors that the Institute of Medicine has found that preventable medication errors harm a estimated 1.5 million Americans each year. "E-prescribing is a powerful tool to eliminate problems with handwriting legibility and to alert providers in real time to adverse drug-to-drug interactions and allergic reactions," he wrote.

Serota added that for one Blue Cross and Blue Shield plan that has covered one million e-prescriptions since 2006, one-third received potential drug interaction warnings and more than 50,000 adverse drug events may have been prevented through e-prescribing. Fewer than one physician in five uses e-prescribing, he wrote.

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