In the latest step toward the computerization of Americans' medical information, President-elect Barack Obama said in a speech Thursday that the government will push for electronic health records for all Americans within five years in order to save both dollars and lives.
"To improve the quality of our health care while lowering its cost, we will make the immediate investments necessary to ensure that, within five years, all of America's medical records are computerized," Obama said in a speech from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "This will cut waste, eliminate red tape and reduce the need to repeat expensive medical tests."
"But it just won't save billions of dollars and thousands of jobs; it will save lives by reducing the deadly but preventable medical errors that pervade our health-care system," he said.
Electronic health records systems are systems employed by hospitals, insurance companies and other medical institutions to keep track of patient information. While the development of the systems is still in its infancy, some medical centers such as those run by Group Health Cooperative and Kaiser Permanente use them to keep track of patients.
Dr. Bill Crounse, senior director of worldwide health for the Microsoft Corporation, said that he is "thrilled that President-elect Barack Obama is stepping forward to carry the torch" with regard to the development of electronic medical records for all Americans.
"The opportunity here is so much bigger than just electronic medical records," he said. "The opportunity is really to think in entirely new ways about how you do health care."
Microsoft could well be one of the major players in the eventual development of such a system. The company launched a beta program of an online medical records program called Healthvault in 2007. The company now has partnered with Kaiser, the American Heart Association, the Cleveland Clinic and others in creating a user-accessible program and laying an infrastructure for others to build upon.
But the plan for a wholesale switch to electronic medical records may have a number of hurdles to clear before it sees the light of day.
"In 2004, President Bush proclaimed that we would have electronic medical records for most Americans within 10 years ... and the government did make some investments," Crounse said. "Here we are five years later, and I think the needle has moved slightly."
Even the definition of what makes up "electronic health records" is still a matter of some debate. While electronic systems could conceivably allow doctors to order tests, send prescriptions and keep track of every detail of an individual's medical history, some organizations have a very loose definition of what an electronic health record is. Procedures as rudimentary as electronic medical billing, for example, are assumed by some to fit the bill.
"Electronic medical records could constitute anything from something as simple as the note that contains a doctor's decisions to the underlying data that led to those decisions," said Rob Webb, CEO of OptumHealth Care Solutions,another company that is looking for opportunities to develop electronic medical records technologies.