Technology, patient groups form project to link medical records electronically

Wednesday, December 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Land unconscious in an emergency room today and there's no quick way for doctors to verify the medications you take, allergies you have or other vital information to make sure you don't become victim of a medical error.

Now an unusual mix of technology companies, consumer advocates and doctors is joining to try to fix that problem: using the confidential computer systems that make online banking work to link certain medical records electronically so a doctor anytime, anywhere can get vital information to treat patients.

The nonprofit venture called the Patient Safety Institute announced Tuesday it has raised $8 million for a pilot test of the project, in a city to be picked next month.

One cause of the medical errors that kill thousands of Americans each year is the nation's tangled maze of health records. Patients see numerous doctors who don't share diagnoses or other information; use multiple medications, prescribed by different doctors and bought at different pharmacies, that can interact dangerously; and get lab test results via paper records that can be lost.

Experts for a decade have called for electronic linkage of some of these records to reduce errors. But the Patient Safety Institute, or PSI, faces an uphill battle.

Previous similar attempts have failed, largely because doctors, hospitals and technology companies can't agree on standards to ensure everybody's computer systems are compatible, said Dr. Gregg Meyer of the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

That meant doctors and hospitals were reluctant to make the investments needed to digitize records.

To improve Americans' safety, ``somebody has to do this,'' Meyer said. If the new group ``brings the right players to the table to get this accomplished, that's a wonderful thing.''

One other obstacle is patient privacy. PSI marks the first time consumer advocates, including the huge National Consumers League, have joined an attempt to link medical records electronically_ and they pledged to ensure the technology guards patients' health records as carefully as online banking guards checking accounts.

Still, it's not clear if the new group can overcome all the hurdles. Absent from Tuesday's collaboration were some of health care's biggest information technology companies, such as Cerner Corp. Nor has it won the endorsement of such groups as the American Medical Association, said AMA spokeswoman Brenda Craine.

PSI is funded by Hewlett-Packard and seven other information technology companies, and governed by heads of the consumers League, the physician Medical Group Management Association, and other patient advocacy groups.

The idea: link doctors' offices, hospitals and pharmacies in a given area _ say a city or state _ so that health workers approved to access the program can, at the push of a few buttons, find out all of a patient's allergies, medications, vaccinations and diagnoses.

``It's very important when they're seeking health care in crisis, when they can't speak,'' that doctors have such information, said PSI board member Jane Delgado of the National Alliance for Hispanic Health.

Patients would have to consent to having their health information included in the project. Then every doctor, hospital or pharmacy the patient uses would also have to participate, to ensure a complete health record.

The technology would work regardless of which hardware and software different doctors and hospitals use, said Dr. Jack Lewin, head of the California Medical Association and chairman of PSI.

``If Fed Ex can track packages across the country ... surely we can keep track of medications and the particulars necessary for our health,'' said Lisa Price of PSI funder Williams Communications, a fiber-optic network.

Lewin said PSI will choose a major U.S. city within a few weeks to begin signing up participants in the first pilot test to see if such a project can work. He said various city and even state health officials have expressed interest, but wouldn't identify the leading candidates.