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Hurricane Katrina Highlights Need For Electronic Medical Record-Keeping

The storm destroyed medical records that were needed to give victims medical attention.

As victims of Hurricane Katrina sought medical treatment, they faced destroyed facilities and missing medical histories.

"We've learned a lot about what we lack as a nation with the Katrina disaster--we lack the essentials," Daniel Martich, a doctor who heads up the electronic medical records initiative at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, told attendees of the InformationWeek Fall Conference on Monday. Among those essentials, Martich says, are electronic lists of the medications, allergies, and immunizations that would help emergency medical personnel provide more rapid treatment during a crisis.

Better records would help save $300 billion a year now lost to errors, misdiagnosis, and unnecessary duplication of tests resulting from inadequate access to information, said Leslie McCombs, the medical center's senior director of special projects. Meanwhile, the health-care industries of Canada and England are 12 to 18 months ahead of the United States and are making progress on reducing that waste, CIO Dan Drawbaugh said.

The medical center is attempting to lead the E-records charge, thanks in large part to the $402 million deal it signed with IBM to create a unified digital architecture in which information flows freely among its 19 hospitals and 4,000 physicians. As part of that deal, the two partners also are jointly overseeing a $200 million venture-capital fund to design, develop, and commercialize health care technologies.

In order to build tools the industry actually will use, software vendors have to take into account the increasingly harried nature of health-care delivery. For instance, Martich said physicians only are able to spend an average of seven minutes with patients during follow-up visits, making the physicians highly resistant to interacting with clunky software. For that reason, the medical center views its E-records effort as a physician- and clinician-driven operational project, not an IT initiative. "You have to design the most time-saving thing they can do, and then they'll do it," Martich said. "We're getting there because we're paying attention to those workflow and cultural issues."

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