Kaiser, VA Join to Give E-health Efforts a Boost

Incentives in the stimulus bill are also expected to foster a rapid spread of e-health records.

The e-health revolution got a shot in the arm earlier this month when health care network giant Kaiser Permanente and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs declared a months-long pilot program of sharing patient electronic health records (EHR) a success.

The pilot program links health records of San Diego area residents stored in the VA's Veterans Affairs Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA) and Kaiser Permanente's HealthConnect electronic health systems.

Patients must agree to be part of the shared system, which uses the Nationwide Health Information Network, a set of government protocols and standards designed to allow the secure exchange of health information between physicians at both private practices and hospitals.

During a press briefing in San Diego, officials from the VA and Kaiser Permanente also outlined plans to add the EHRs of Department of Defense personnel to the ehealth system and to expand the program geographically in the coming months.

Dr. Stephen L. Ondra, the VA's senior policy adviser for health affairs, said that since most veterans receive some medical care outside of VA or DOD facilities, interoperability between federal agencies and the private sector is essential to providing adequate medical care.

Ondra said that gathering the paper records of a single patient could take weeks. The same process takes seconds using EHRs. "The net effect is clearly an improvement in quality, an increase in patient safety and a tremendous improvement in efficiency," he said.

Such EHR efforts are likely to become far more widespread as the $17 billion designated for incentive payments for e-health record projects in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act becomes available.

To date, only about 25% of the nation's 5,000 hospitals have rolled out EHR systems, and only a small fraction of physician practices have done the same. Industry observers cite the high price tag of EHR systems, which can run into the millions of dollars for hospitals and tens of thousands of dollars for small medical practices.

Those costs would be somewhat offset by the payments provided by the stimulus bill's Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, which will provide up to $64,000 in reimbursement payments to health care operations that deploy EHRs and prove that they are effectively using such systems by January 2011.

The law aims to speed the process by cutting the reimbursement amount available in each successive year. Also, the HITECH legislation calls for cutting Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements to medical facilities that don't deploy EHR systems by 2015.

In light of such deadlines, IBM's Global Financing unit announced last year that it had signed deals to offer financing at rates starting at 3% to users who buy e-health systems sold by four IT partners.

Christine Chang, an e-health IT analyst at research firm Ovum, said she expects more lenders to follow suit.

"No one was saving up money" to upgrade IT infrastructure so it would meet the requirements of the HITECH statute, Chang said. "Early adopters went ahead and made the investment, but most [organizations] were waiting. Suddenly, if you don't do it now -- literally in 2010 -- you won't get the incentives."

This version of this story originally appeared in Computerworld's print edition. It's an edited version of an article that first ran on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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