President Obama has set a goal that every American should have an electronic health record by 2014. "That is the goal we are working toward right now. We are trying to make the network available as fast as we can," Blumenthal said in an interview with MIT's Technology Review.
A big first step will be to set the definition of "meaningful use." The U.S. government is distributing substantial financial incentives to hospitals and physicians to implement IT systems, contingent on the technology being put to "meaningful use." But regulations don't define "meaningful use." Blumenthal said his office is writing the definitions for initial release in December.
Electronic health records will provide "fewer errors, fewer missed diagnoses, less duplication of tests, and fewer adverse drug events," Blumenthal told Technology Review.
Insurance companies have failed, to date, to lead the drive to get e-health records put in place, because the companies can pass the costs of waste on to their clients, he said.
Likewise, hospitals lack financial incentive to share electronic data. By sharing data, hospitals run the risk of losing patients to competitors, Blumenthal said.
As an example of the complexity of modern healthcare, which the U.S. hopes to reduce using e-health records, Blumenthal said the average 65-year-old today has five chronic conditions, 14 doctors, and takes multiple medications. "Patients are suffering because necessary information is not available at the point of care. With robust health-information exchange, there can be improved quality of care and improved care coordination," he said.
Blumenthal also described the personal difficulties he had transitioning to electronic records -- and the benefits he saw in his medical practice. "A couple of years ago, I saw a patient with a urinary-tract infection," he told Technology Review. "I entered the order for Bactrim [a sulfa drug] on my computerized physician-order-entry system -- and a warning came up saying this patient is allergic to sulfa. I am sure in the paper record there was a record of that, but it's often easy to overlook things in a voluminous paper record. That kind of gain, repeated hundreds of thousands of times across the country, can result in real improvements in care."
InformationWeek has published an in-depth report on e-health and the federal stimulus package. Download the report here (registration required).