My turn: 'Technology's wonders' coming to a doctor's office near you

Posted: Monday, February 23, 2009

In his inaugural speech, President Barack Obama pledged to "wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its costs." The recently enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 includes funding to bring these wonders from the world of rhetoric to the world of reality, right here in Alaska. The good news is most health-care providers are "shovel ready."

This funding aims to accelerate the adoption of Health Information Technology systems while creating high-tech jobs in the process. Timing couldn't be better for Alaskans to obtain some of this funding, but competition in the national arena will be intense. We must act quickly.

The fact is we have already made exciting progress toward this goal. This month, the non-profit Alaska eHealth Network begins work with GCI to design the information infrastructure to interconnect electronic health records throughout Alaska. When complete, this network will boost the safety, speed, and quality of health care data while protecting privacy and reducing costs. Once in place, it will save Alaskans $250 million annually, as much as 5 percent of total health care costs.

What are electronic health records? Simply put, an electronic health record is a computerized record that replaces a patient's paper record. As any doctor will tell you, accurate patient information is the lifeblood of effective treatment.

When needed, electronic health records can access a health information exchange - the heart of the system - which connects them from a doctor's office to another office or hospital, making vital records instantly available to cooperating, designated health care providers. Lab results, allergies, medical history and other essential health data are at health care providers' fingertips, along with information about treatments, medications and potential side effects. This information leads to quick, effective treatment.

This feature will especially benefit rural Alaskans, whose primary care may be in a village, and those who may require transfer to a larger health care facility in a larger community. In fact, anyone who travels and suffers illness or injury away from home will be much better off with an electronic health record system in place and available wherever they go.

A key advantage of the network will be patient safety. Ask Ben Tisdale, a 71-year-old Alaskan who is now blind. While undergoing treatment for heart disease, Ben was mistakenly given a dangerous combination of medications that destroyed his optic nerves. Had interconnected electronic health records been in place, with their medicine alerts, Ben would still have his sight.

Another advantage is less paperwork for everyone - no more filling out the same long forms during each visit to a health care provider. Once it's done, it's done. Less paperwork means less cost and fewer delays for everyone.

To ensure privacy, medical records will be stored in a medical provider's secure computer system. Individuals can access their own files, but no one else can access them unless they give permission. If they do give approval, records can only be viewed by another health care provider. In addition, individuals can check at any time to see who has viewed records.

Not interested in participating? No worries. Inclusion in the network will be entirely voluntary. No one is required to participate.

Working with the partners represented by the Alaska eHealth Network, Alaska's Legislature and forward-thinking funders such as the Rasmuson Foundation deserve enormous thanks for the support they have provided to the strategic plan for interoperable electronic health records for all Alaskans.

But Alaska still needs $15 million to finish this network. The economic stimulus package will provide money to Alaska for this work, provided there is a qualifying state match of $1 of state funds to $10 of federal funds. To receive federal funds, the state must approve legislation that commits Alaska to building the infrastructure necessary for health information exchange.

We strongly urge our legislators and Gov. Sarah Palin to begin taking action today to ensure these health technology stimulus funds reach Alaska. For our health, and for our finances, it is the right thing to do, and the right time to do it. Let's get this shovel in the ground and get to work.

• Rebecca Madison is director of the Alaska eHealth Network and a Fairbanks resident. She focuses on the enactment of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The relevant section of this federal legislation is referred to as ''Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act."

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