Sharing data allows us to care for people better

The exploding field of information technology has enormous potential to reduce medical errors, improve quality of care and lower healthcare costs.

Fragmented, disorganized and inaccessible clinical information adversely affects the quality of healthcare and compromises patient safety. The Institute of Medicine estimates that as many as 98,000 Americans die each year from medical errors in hospitals. Many more Americans die or are permanently disabled because of inappropriate treatment or mistreatment. Furthermore, studies have found that as much as $300 billion is spent each year on healthcare that does not improve patient outcomes — treatment that is unnecessary or ineffective.

Health information technology, which is used to collect and store clinical, administrative and financial health information electronically, is the solution to this problem. Technologies such as electronic health records and bar coding of prescription drugs have been proposed as a means to lower healthcare costs and reduce medical errors. We need to explore these areas.

We are constantly working on new ways to enhance and improve the field of medicine in the 21st century. But efficient, quality patient care is often compromised because physicians and nurses still communicate vital information through handwritten notes. Medical orders and prescriptions are handwritten, and far too often they are misunderstood or not followed in accordance with the physician’s instructions. And patients often have multiple providers. In addition to seeing their internists, patients often schedule appointments with cardiologists, endocrinologists, rheumatologists and other healthcare professionals.

In this outdated, paper-based system, a patient’s medical information is scattered across medical records kept by numerous caregivers in many different locations. As a result, all of the patient’s medical information is often unavailable at the time of care. This is completely unacceptable.

The potential savings from better use of information technology are great. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that health information technology has the potential to save $140 billion a year. In order for these savings to be achieved, we must create an infrastructure for interoperability. I am pleased that the Senate unanimously approved the Wired for Health Care Quality Act, which is the first step in building that infrastructure and moving toward an electronic system. This legislation brings the public and private sector together to accelerate the widespread adoption of health information technology and quality measurement across our healthcare system. Specifically, the measure requires the secretary of health and human services to establish a public-private collaborative to recommend specific standards for electronic exchange of health information. The bill also codifies the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.

There are significant barriers to the adoption of information-technology systems in healthcare. I believe that the federal government and the private sector, working together, can implement uniform standards to facilitate the exchange of information without stifling innovation.

I believe we need to begin transforming healthcare through information technology. The development and adoption of interoperable electronic health records is an important step that can be taken to improve quality of care and reduce costs.

An electronic record is never lost or misfiled. It is always exactly where it should be, even if you aren’t. This means that an electronic record may be accessed from any point in the healthcare system.

So, if you happen to be traveling in my home state of Nevada and you get sick or get in an accident, a physician can instantly obtain medical information such as allergies, medications and prior diagnoses to determine how best to treat you.

Electronic health records can also help ensure that physicians have the information they need to make appropriate clinical decisions. Because of the rapid growth of medical information and new treatment methods, physicians must accumulate a large volume of new knowledge in a short time. Information overload is, in general, an occupational dilemma that has been complicated by wide variability in treatment methods and patient care across geographic regions.

Best practices serve as a guideline for prevention or treatment of a certain disease or condition. They consist of quality-improving strategies that bring together the best external evidence and other knowledge necessary for informed decisionmaking about a specific healthcare problem. Health information technology can help facilitate the development of best practices.

Clearly, health information technology has the potential to revolutionize the U.S. healthcare system. If properly implemented, health information technology will reduce duplication and cut down administrative costs such as transcription and billing. In addition, this technology will reduce medical errors and potentially reduce medical liability insurance premiums for physicians and other healthcare professionals.

Ensign is the chairman of the Technology, Innovation and Competitiveness Committee.