Over the past five years, taxpayers have doled out over $30 billion in bonus payments to push hospitals and doctors’ offices to switch from paper to electronic medical records. Now nearly all hospitals and over half of all office-based doctors have gone digital; but much of that electronic information doesn’t flow freely between health care providers because their separate software systems do not communicate — and consumers are losing out.
Consumers win when electronic health records (EHR) systems talk to each other.
The hope was that health care providers would seamlessly exchange medical records, making people’s medical information available to clinicians whenever and wherever they need it. With real-time access to information on what treatments, drugs or hospital stays people have already had, patients and clinicians can avoid repeating tests, stay away from medications that didn’t help, and better coordinate care provided by different doctors. Primary care doctors can also receive immediate notification when their patients go to the hospital and follow up with them — all of which means better and less expensive care for consumers.
But major roadblocks to health care providers’ sharing electronic data still exist, even when such information is needed to treat patients and the transfer can be done securely. In a report to Congress last year, the Department of Health and Human Services revealed that some vendors of medical record systems were intentionally blocking data sharing out of fear that they would lose customers who can easily transfer patients’ information into a competitor’s network. The report also noted that some hospitals refuse to transfer patient records outside their health system so they can control which providers patients see and increase their market share.
Some encouraging signs of change
In an encouraging sign that things could be changing, the leading vendors of EHR systems, along with hospitals in 46 states and more than a dozen professional health organizations, recently pledged not to obstruct the transfer of patients’ electronic records. On the heels of this pact, the Obama administration has proposed to tighten scrutiny over “data blocking” practices. This comes almost a year after the president signed into law a bill prohibiting health care providers from deliberately obstructing information sharing if they receive federal subsidies for using electronic medical records.
The nation’s investment in electronic medical records will be successful only if it means better care for consumers. Getting EHR systems to talk to each other will get us closer to that goal.
Claire Noel-Miller is a senior strategic policy adviser for the AARP Public Policy Institute, where she provides expertise in quantitative research methods applied to a variety of health policy issues related to older adults.