Redirecting health care

Many experts believe consumer-directed health care — giving patients greater decision making powers through greater transparency in pricing and understanding of possible outcomes — is the path toward a better medical system. Yet one of the key tools to constructing this new model still lags far behind: the broad deployment of electronic medical records and consumer access to this information.

The technology is available, it just hasn’t been widely applied. Advocates of consumer-directed health care routinely advocate policies like broader application of Health Savings Accounts and more choices in public programs like Medicare and Medicaid — all great ideas. But introducing more consumer choice in American health care will never reach its full potential until patients have the information to make informed decisions. Electronic health records are an essential component for patients to make informed and safe decisions.

The lag in utilization of personal health information tools is not due to lack of trying. Technology companies, systems integrators, health-care providers and even government are doing their best to speed the deployment of modern applications of health information technology. One of the reasons why progress has been slow in adopting new applications like electronic personal-health records is that consumers are unaware of the promises these technologies hold. Furthermore, many consumers believe they are already being utilized. Spending more time educating citizens about the promise and prospects of personalized health information technology should be a top priority of the federal government and the private sector.

Some of this work has already begun. Much more is needed. For example, according to a recent national poll of registered voters conducted by Erickson Retirement Communities, nearly seven out of 10 Americans (68 percent) believe most doctors and hospitals already have adopted electronic medical records. In reality, only 10 percent to 20 percent have adopted these tools, while far fewer allow patients direct access to the information. Closing this gap between perception and reality is one of the keys to stimulating more consumer demand.

It is hard to get citizens to insist on something they think they already have. Better education about the lack of availability and access will stimulate citizens to clamor for faster deployment.

The same survey shows nearly three out of five (57 percent) voters would want to track their health care on-line if their records were available. An overwhelming number of younger voters want this kind of access. While seniors say they would prefer to do it too, many of them still prefer greater interaction with their doctors. Again, where are the educational efforts to show voters the benefits of personalized, electronic health records?

The most salient reason to promote faster deployment of health information applications is the need to have access to these records in the case of emergency. Imagine the peace of mind associated with having quick and easy access to a loved one’s health information, including medications, allergies and recent hospitalizations in an acute emergency situation. This would dramatically reduce the number of tests and uncertainty associated with a medical condition away from home or in an emergency room.

Policy-makers and others interested in promoting consumer-directed health care need to recognize the importance of electronic medical records in this debate. Technology companies, health-care providers and the government all play a vital role, but it is ultimately citizen demand that will open the doors to broader utilization. The full promise of consumer directed health care won’t happen overnight. Citizens first need to get comfortable with gathering information and making choices amidst a vast array of information. Yet this process can only work if the technology is available and accessible at consumers’ fingertips. Some information is already available, and the technology exits, but in order to realize the full benefit of consumer-directed health care, policy-makers need broad dissemination of health information technology — particularly providing help from the consumers’ perspective — on the legislative front burner.

There are many health care issues that demand Congress’ attention. Legislation promoting a speedier deployment of electronic health records has bipartisan support, saves money and will promote better health outcomes. And for those of us interested in advancing consumer-directed health care, it will provide the necessary information to make that goal a reality.

Rep. Jon Porter, Nevada Republican, is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee.

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