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Medical records going online

By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar
Associated Press / July 14, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Obama administration rolled out an ambitious five-year plan yesterday for moving doctors and hospitals to computerized medical records, promising greater safety for patients and lower costs.

Starting next year, doctors’ offices and hospitals can get federal money to help defray the costs of the systems, which can run to millions of dollars for hospitals. Providers who don’t comply by 2015 will face cuts in Medicare payments.

Federal incentive payments for doctors and hospitals to buy computerized systems could reach $27 billion over 10 years, and that’s only a fraction of what technology vendors stand to take in.

It is hoped the investment will streamline the delivery of medical care, yielding long-run savings.

Patients would receive the benefit of systems that can warn doctors before they make a mistake — prescribing a drug that could cause a severe reaction, for example. And there is also the convenience of being able to access records online.

Federal officials said they tried to address doctors’ concerns that the initial draft of the rule asked them to do too much, too quickly. More than half of family doctors practice in groups of four or fewer.

The top government official overseeing the transition program says that reflects what happened to him in a previous stage of his career, when as a middle-age primary care doctor he was forced to learn to use electronic medical records.

David Blumenthal, now national coordinator for electronic health records, said the computer once saved him from prescribing a drug to a patient who was allergic to the medication. On many other occasions, he was able to avoid ordering duplicative tests, because earlier results stored in the system told him what he needed to know.

“I watched it make my care better before my eyes,’’ said Blumenthal, who taught at Harvard and was director of the Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital/Partners Healthcare System.

Money for electronic records was included in the 2009 economic stimulus bill.

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