Georgia picked for digitized medical records program

By Bill Hendrick

Your doctor pulls out a file of 20 years of your medical records and even he can’t read the hieroglyphics.

It’s one of the reasons medical errors cause hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of serious illnesses every year. It’s also why the federal government is spearheading a $150 million Medicare program to help hundreds of physicians, including 100 in Georgia, convert their paper records to electronic ones.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt and Gov. Sonny Perdue announced Thursday that Georgia has been selected to take part in the program, along with 11 other states, that will provide thousands of dollars to help physicians digitize medical records.

In Georgia, 100 physicians will receive funds of up to $58,000 per physician and $290,000 per practice to convert records to electronic ones.

Another 100 will take part as members of a control group. They will receive some funds to maintain paper records and report the progress of their patients’ health to be compared with patients of the doctors who go digital, Leavitt said.

About 1,200 doctors across the country will participate in the Medicare project, Leavitt said.

President Bush has called for national electronic medical systems to be in place by 2014.

Perdue said Georgia made a strong pitch to be selected as one of the demonstration locations.

“This moves the ball to where we want to be,” Perdue said. “The program will bring our state and nation one step closer to the day when it will be as easy for you and your physician to pull up your medical records” as it is now to check your financial health by using ATMs.

Steps will be taken to make sure patients’ electronic records will be safe and secure, he said.

“Good health care requires a modern-day system,” Perdue said.

The state Department of Community Health will be involved in selecting the participating doctors.

Leavitt said fewer than 10 percent of small practices have electronic systems, which cost a minimum of $40,000 to set up.

Dr. Bruce LeClair, president of the 2,500-member Georgia Academy of Family Physicians, said the move toward electronic records “is a very positive thing if it’s done right, but the expense to private practitioners will be considerable.”

“We like the idea that the government is sponsoring some pilot projects,” he said. “Security is an important thing, and they’ll have to make sure of this. Some physicians are a little wary that there may be a little too much access, but we think that problem can be solved.”

Electronic records could have many advantages, said Dr. Marty Michaels of Dalton, including transmission of prescriptions and information from doctors to hospitals.

And records could be “backed up” so they wouldn’t be lost in fires or other disasters, he said.

Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said the medical profession is “scandalously behind” other industries in information technology, but that a rush to catch up could be dangerous.

“It should have happened a long time ago,” he said.

“We’re still seeing people die in hospitals because of penmanship mistakes. We’re seeing cases where patients’ charts can’t be found.”

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