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US pushes digital medical records

Experts believe result would be fewer errors

WASHINGTON -- Medical records, a last bastion of paper and pen, may be dragged into the electronic age under a new strategy outlined by the US government yesterday.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said he was starting by appointing a panel of executives to figure out how much it will cost to switch hospitals, pharmacies, and other bits and pieces of the healthcare system to computer-based technology.

By the end of this year the panel is also to report on the potential benefits of such a switch.

Healthcare experts agree that going digital will reduce errors that kill up to 98,000 patients a year, will speed many aspects of healthcare, and reduce the paperwork burden.

Handheld computers are seen everywhere from the carrier who delivers packages to stock-checkers in stores, but doctors still scribble out prescriptions and notes in notoriously illegible script.

Only 13 percent of hospitals and 14 to 28 percent of physicians' practices say they have electronic health systems, HHS said.

Computer-based records could be accessed from anywhere, and would be less likely to be lost, although care must be taken to ensure privacy, the Institute of Medicine, which advises the federal government on health matters, reported in 2002.

As a first step, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services plans to introduce an Internet-based portal that Medicare beneficiaries can use to see their claims information.

Medicare also will press for the use of electronic health records, said CMS administrator Dr. Mark McClellan, although writing prescriptions electronically, known as e-prescribing, will remain optional.

''Promoting the adoption of e-prescribing is an essential step toward improving the safety and quality of healthcare," McClellan said.

The 10-year plan announced by HHS includes goals to get individual doctors, clinics, and hospitals to install computer-based systems, and building an interconnected system to link different facilities.

To encourage hospitals and clinics to go electronic, the government plans to look at incentives such as regional contracts, grants, and low-interest loans.

Thompson yesterday also disclosed a series of grants to help advance efforts. The grants include $425,000 for the Massachusetts Health Data Consortium, a group of hospitals, insurers, and other health care organizations. The consortium will use the money, along with $615,000 in matching grants from its members, to pay for an electronic medical records program in ten hospital emergency rooms, community health centers, and doctors' offices. Emergency room doctors at participating hospitals will have access to electronic medication records of patients from all ten facilities. Currently, a major drawback of electronic medical records is that patients often have various records at different hospitals, health centers, and doctors offices, which don't have access to each others' records.

Last April President Bush said he wanted to ensure that most Americans have electronic health records within 10 years. He has proposed an additional $50 million in his 2005 budget to assist that effort.

The discussion has already spawned a small industry of companies that want to offer electronic record systems.

''This plan sorts out the myriad of issues involved in achieving the benefits of health information technology, and it lays out a coherent direction for reaching our goals," Thompson told a news conference.

The American Medical Association, which represents about 300,000 doctors, welcomed yesterday's news.

Globe staff writer Liz Kowalczyk contributed material to this report.

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