Technology must play a central role for proposed health care reform to contain costs, improve access, and save lives. A smart, ubiquitous electronic medical record system is certainly a big part of the package, but will we have to sacrifice our privacy to reach these lofty goals?
“A key part of health care reform involves the use of technology to address a number of issues such as access, value, and cost,” says former Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a former heart-lung transplant surgeon. He made his comments at the General Electric Healthymagination conference in New York City.
But what exactly is all the hype about?
Electronic Medical Records: The Promise
An electronic medical record is a digital and portable version of the current paper file system that would be accessible to all doctors. That means that whenever you see a new physician, you could stop filling out endless paper forms, as your doctor could access everything about you on the computer.
"Imagine a world where everything important about a patient is known to the physician the first time that patient presents,” says Andrew Rubin, vice president for NYU Medical Center Clinical Affairs and Affiliates in New York City. Rubin says it isn’t about finding out your medical “secrets,” but about sharing important information with doctors who may not know your history.
“No one doctor currently has complete cradle to grave medical records and a lot of things fall through the cracks as a result,” says Marie Savard, MD, a clinical associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and author of How to Save Your Own Life.
“We know that the ability to make a diagnosis is based more on medical records and your history than blood work and an exam.”
“Having your lifelong history right there will actually assure that the diagnosis is more accurate and fewer mistakes will get made,” Savard says.
But “an electronic medical record is only as good as its availability,” she says. “All these benefits are only possible if the information is in an open network and everyone with permission has unfettered access,” she says.
Rubin agrees: “We need to be able to implement an electronic medical record where physicians can talk to each other about patients, and hospitals and physicians can communicate back and forth and share critical information on tests done and previous diagnoses, so that everyone involved has the patient’s medical history at their fingertips,”
This will ultimately save money by reducing unnecessary, repeat tests, and cutting back on the time it takes to make diagnosis, Rubin says.
But it also opens a whole new can of worms.
EMR: The privacy pitfall
It’s one thing to have your financial information online, but your health information is another story altogether. Many people have real fears about what could happen if their medical records fell into the wrong hands.