Electronic health records can save lives and improve medical care

Electronic health records can save lives and improve medical care

On most issues, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle and former Governor Tommy Thompson rarely see eye-to-eye. When it comes to touting the advantages of electronic health records, however, Doyle and Thompson are carefully tracking the same computer screen.
Doyle’s two-year state budget includes $10 million in grants and loans for medical providers to switch over to electronic health records, a move that could help harness the power of information technology to improve the quality of medical care in Wisconsin.
If approved by the Legislature, the initiative would fit neatly within a federal effort to improve health information technology. That drive began a year ago when Thompson was secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Thompson left office early this month after four years in the Bush administration.
Consider these strikingly similar quotes from Doyle and Thompson about the problems of existing paper records – and the promise of electronic health records:
“Care providers still often rely on paper charts written by hand to record the treatment of patients. The use of electronic medical records systems can not only prevent deaths, but also eliminate much of the unnecessary administrative costs,” Doyle said Friday.
A day earlier, Thompson spoke in Appleton to the Wisconsin Newspaper Association’s annual conference. He joked with editors that doctors were straight-A students in virtually every subject taught in school – except handwriting. Unfortunately, the failure of the medical system to accurately register and quickly transmit patient records is no laughing matter. In fact, Thompson said, it is costing lives.
“The most amazing thing about 21st century medicine is that it’s held together by 19th century paperwork,” Thompson said. “Health information technology promises huge benefits, and we need to move quickly across many fronts to capture these benefits.”
For many big players in the health-care industry, electronic health care records aren’t a new concept or even a new practice. In fact, Wisconsin is ahead of the national curve. Companies such as GE Healthcare and Epic Systems are national leaders. The Medical College of Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin and Marshfield Clinic are well on their way to paperless medical record systems. Those Wisconsin institutions and more were represented at a health IT summit called by Thompson in May 2004.
But for many smaller health-care systems, the conversion from paper to computers has only begun. Doyle said he wants to accelerate the process in Wisconsin, and create a new state board of doctors, technology experts and patient representatives that would work on connecting the systems by 2010 so doctors in different organizations could easily trade information.
What are the benefits of such a system? It boils down to quality, safety, speed and cost.

  • Making patient records instantly available whenever and wherever they are needed and authorized.
  • Ensuring that those records are always up to date.
  • Avoiding costly duplicate tests and unnecessary hospitalizations. About 20 percent of all hospital lab tests are ordered because previous results cannot be found.
  • Providing medical professionals with the best and latest treatment options.
  • Helping eliminate medical errors, which some experts believe could be slashed by as much as 90 percent. According to the U.S. Institute of Medicine, up to 98,000 people in the United States die every year from medical errors.
  • Creating opportunities to gather non-identifiable information about health outcomes for research to pinpoint the most effective treatments.
  • Controlling costs, perhaps saving as much as $300 billion per year nationwide. That estimate comes from Dr. David Brailer, the national coordinator of health information technology, who says about 30 percent of current health care spending is inappropriate, redundant or unnecessary.
  • Protecting patient privacy.

It may not be the latest drug that saves your life the next time you’re sick, but the best computer software. Thompson recognized that during his tenure at DHHS; Doyle has the same vision for the state. It’s an idea worthy of bipartisan support in the Legislature.

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and the Wisconsin Innovation Network. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.