HHS chief unveils electronic medical records initiative

By Julie Rovner, CongressDaily

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson Thursday announced a series of initiatives aimed at speeding up development and implementation of a national infrastructure for electronic medical records and vowed the federal government would beat President Bush's call last month for every patient to have an electronic record within 10 years.

"We need to get it done, and we need to get it done now," Thompson said at an HHS-sponsored information technology summit attended by health system leaders and technology company representatives.

Thompson said a good information technology system "could save our economy, conservatively, $140 billion a year. That's 10 percent of what we spend right now [on health care]."

At the summit, Thompson announced that the international health group HL7 has approved standards and a model for an electronic health record, which he termed "a critical first step" toward development of an "interoperable" system that will let different health facilities talk to each other.

Thompson also announced that copies of "SNOMED CT," a standardized electronic medical vocabulary program HHS has licensed from the American College of Pathologists, will be available for free from the National Library of Medicine.

Helping the health care system find ways to collect and share information electronically is one of the few areas of significant bipartisan agreement in Congress this year.

In an interview with health reporters Wednesday, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., called legislation to help facilitate the transition "a no-brainer. The health care system is the least savvy and technologically advanced of our sectors."

At the HHS summit, House Ways and Means Health Subcommittee Chairwoman Nancy Johnson, R-Conn., said development of an information technology infrastructure is critical to the nation's ability to realize the cost-saving potential of things like disease management.

Having a system that protects privacy, yet is able to transmit needed information "is the key to whether the health care system moves forward or back," Johnson said.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich challenged those attending the summit -- and federal officials -- to move aggressively. "Grow what already exists. Don't spend 10 years inventing the future," he said.

Gingrich suggested that incoming Medicare beneficiaries who receive "welcome to Medicare" physicals starting in 2005 also be given electronic medical records.

"We should never have a 'Welcome to Medicare' physical that's paper-based," he said.