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Questions Surround Health IT Money

Questions Surround Health IT Money

Erica Werner / AP

March 23, 2009

Here’s the best-case scenario for the government’s plans to spend $19 billion on computerized medical records: seamless communication among doctors and patients, and far fewer mistakes.

And the worst-case: $19 billion goes down the drain.

The medical industry is hoping for the first outcome, even while some fear the second, as the Health and Human Services Department tries to get hundreds of thousands of doctors to quit using paper files and join the digital age.

The money for the massive undertaking is in the economic stimulus bill that President Barack Obama signed into law last month.

“We need to get this right,” said Dr. David Kibbe, a senior adviser at the American Academy of Family Physicians. “Adoption of information technology for its own sake really is not the end game.”

The end game, Kibbe and others say, is for doctors’ offices and hospitals to be able to easily share patient information, something the vast majority can’t do today. That would cut down on mistaken and unnecessary procedures and give doctors faster access to more accurate information about patients’ medical histories and drug regimens.

The goals get even more ambitious. A forum on Capitol Hill Monday focused on making medical information not just digital but wireless. Patients could be reminded via mobile devices to take their medications, and send back details like weight and blood sugar level.

Medical costs for chronic conditions like diabetes are driven up dramatically because patients don’t adhere to their medical regimens; wireless technology could help.

“The promise of these applications is that we can improve the health and productivity of people with chronic disease,” Gregory Seiler, a vice president at BeWell Mobile Technology, Inc., said at the forum sponsored by the New America Foundation and the wireless industry trade group CTIA.

The government’s history of undertaking major technological upgrades isn’t entirely encouraging.

The FBI spent four years and $170 million trying to modernize its paper-based case system, only to kill the project in 2005. Before that, the Federal Aviation Administration wasted more than $1 billion trying to overhaul the air traffic control system.

For advocates of the health technology transformation, the biggest fear is that the money could pay just for making paper records electronic, without giving doctors and hospitals much greater ability to connect.

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