Health IT: The next patient frontier

By Sarah Hijaz, Health Policy Intern

Modern technology has dramatically improved the way we communicate, connect, and learn. It is also beginning to improve the way we practice medicine and treat patients. On the 5th anniversary of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, which created a platform for health information technology to revolutionize our health care system, we are taking a look at what technology has and will do for our health care.

Health information technology (HIT) is the new driving force in the health care system. It allows health care providers to quickly search for patient records, have automatic filing systems, and in the future can create an inter-operable electronic database connecting patient records in real-time. Electronic health records (EHRs) present an amazing opportunity to advance care and improve health care provider workflow. For instance, EHRs make it easier to find out what tests have been ordered and medications prescribed by other providers. This cuts down on the chance of unnecessary, duplicate testing and inappropriate prescribing for medicines that should not be taken together.

Health IT also empowers patients.  Prior to the rise of electronic records, many patients, especially those unfamiliar with the healthcare system, thought that their health records were only for the health care provider. When in fact, your health record is yours—and patients should feel free to access it and know what information is in their record.  Now with EHRs, patients can go online and access their health information and make queries of the provider in real time. Some EHRs even allow patients to input information about their health to share with their doctor. By being able to quickly access and easily retain and send out copies of their EHRs, patients have a greater level of control of their personal information. In fact, a recent survey by the National Partnership for Women & Families has shown that 80% of individuals who have online EHR access take advantage of that access.

Currently under HIPAA, patients may have to wait up to 30-60 days before having access to their paper health records. Also, those paper records might be filled out in unreadable handwriting or filled with medical jargon.  Conversely, EHRs can be accessed and downloaded within four business days and patients can receive office visit summaries within one business day, and these documents are far more likely to be clear and legible.

Despite being a huge win for health care and patient’s rights, not all healthcare providers are set up in an EHR system. Plenty of provider offices are still using their familiar paper filing system and/or simply can’t afford to modernize. In order to encourage health care providers to move towards setting up an EHR system, there are various government incentives, such as the Medicare and Medicaid Electronic Health Record (EHR) Incentive Programs, to serve as support and motivation. The Office of the National Coordinator for HIT also oversees the implementation of meaningful use guidelines, to track health IT in practice.

Health IT is also being used to address health disparities, which is particularly interesting. Many patients experience significant barriers to receiving care, like cost or limited access to care or language. A strong HIT infrastructure could provide valuable assistance to help these patients navigate the health care system. While promising, health IT isn’t a panacea and still has some room for improvement. For instance, in an interview with iHealthBeat, Mark Savage, director of Health IT Policy and Programs at the National Partnership for Women and Families, emphasizes the potential and limitations. For example, most EHRs are in English, despite the fact that a significant portion of our population does not speak English as a first language. EHRs might also be a struggle to understand for patients with low literacy. We must keep these things in mind as we build a health IT infrastructure that is patient-centered.

There is still much to be done and many questions that need to be answered around health IT. Who owns the health record information?  How do we best protect this health information? Who has access to it?  Even with the work to be done, the level of government and provider support to move HIT forward and the motivation of advocacy groups to assist in this process are encouraging signs.

For more information about advocacy groups working in this space, check out the Consumer Partnership for eHealth (CPeH), a non-partisan coalition led by the National Partnership for Women & Families, which has been working since 2005 to ensure that efforts to drive health information technology (IT) adoption meet the needs of patients and their families.

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