Healthcare IT: No Quick Cure

Computerization is slowly improving the healthcare system, but it's a long way from living up to expectations.

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Not all healthcare providers have electronic records, many organizations can't share their records with other facilities unless they're affiliated with one another, and even those that can share with others outside their networks often have translation problems because there's no single data standard to facilitate the smooth transfer of information.

"That's one of the things we're struggling with -- the vocabularies, diagnostic codes, nomenclatures. There are a lot of them, and we're trying to bring them together," Stettheimer says. "There are a lot of efforts going on to create the ability to share information, but we're not there yet."

It may be 10 or 15 years before data sharing is widespread, because it's "a lot harder to achieve than most people appreciate," says Peter Gabriel, director of informatics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine's Department of Radiation Oncology.

One looming issue is whether people will trust that their electronic medical records will be secure and private while all this data sharing goes on. Polls show that consumers are concerned that employers and marketers might gain access to their health records, for example.

The counterargument is that electronic records can be more secure than paper ones. Many computerized health record systems already use multilevel access controls that can limit who can view specific information, and some provide audit trails that show who accessed what details when.

But still unresolved are questions about how patients' records will be handled -- and how they want their records handled. Should they be able to opt into a system of shared electronic records, or should they have to opt out? And who will be the owners and custodians of the information -- the patients themselves, or the caregivers or facilities that created the data?

Will IT Cut Medical Costs?

Healthcare IT professionals expect that technology will not only improve patient care, but also deliver savings, by streamlining processes and eliminating costly mistakes. "We have known since at the least the 1990s that the highest-quality care results in the lowest-cost care," says Aaron Seib, CEO of the National eHealth Collaborative, a public-private partnership promoting a nationwide health information system.

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