$19 Billion Electronic Records Stimulus

The U.S. Congress has agreed to provide ninteen billion dollars to help convert America’s health-care records to electronic format. This is, of course, a huge boon to software manufacturers interested in providing conversion services to the healthcare industry, but a share of the funds is going to healthcare providers as well. That may seem like good news, but don’t get out your checkbook yet.

The federal government set a goal of creating an electronic health record for every American by 2014. Five years into that deadline, though, progress is lacking. Problems include a lack of universal data protocols, as well as a determination as to who may access that information, the protocol for doing so, and the circumstances under which they may have the information. Many industry professionals are concerned that they’ll be sued for privacy violations, if access is gained inappropriately. Perhaps most importantly, some estimates suggest that the cost of the conversion and integration will run about $150 billion — a far cry from the mere $19 billion conceded by Congress.

Physicians and their practices can receive $44,000 to $64,000 in incentives. Hospitals are eligible for up to $11 million. Providers who treat Medicare and Medicaid patients must be on paperless systems within five years or they risk losing funding. This penalty may be the strongest motivation to get physicians to invest in electronic record keeping.

Until a standardized system is defined,though, the entire integration of electronic records really should be on hold. Converting systems, whether electronic or not, is a huge undertaking within each medical practice. While practices are already stretched to their limits taking care of records and insurance forms, adding the conversion is a heavy burden. Many fear that their conversion may not comply with the eventual and unannounced Federal standard, requiring them to go through the process again.

It’s nearly certain that a fair amount of time and a bit of that stimulus funding is going to go to setting a standardization for medical records, their integrations, and access protocols. Until that is completed, any move towards comprehensive integration between practices and insurance companies is ill-advised. Continuing to employ paperless records is a good idea, though. Well-hatched databases will be designed with appropriate attention to detail and adequate space for variables not yet considered. The best computer systems are still likely to include a graphic interface that simulates physical records within a computer screen and electronic systems. Be sure your paperless systems keep future integrations in mind, but holding off on integration until those standards are defined seems the wisest practice.