The sharing of health care data electronically is in its beginning stages and implementation of new record-keeping systems is creating some confusion among health professionals across the country. But that can be a good thing according to a number of health experts who gathered last week at a health information conference in Santa Rosa.
"I'm glad that we've got a bunch of stuff that doesn't work as well as we'd like it to," said Mark Frisse, a professor at Vanderbilt University's School of Medicine in Tennessee and a panelist at last week's Redwood MedNet conference in Santa Rosa, "Connecting California to Improve Patient Care."
"If we didn't have that, I don't think we'd be anywhere near where we are today," Frisse said. "Society has these huge opportunities to fundamentally change the way we report and communicate information and I don’t think we really know the value of that yet."
Many electronic health records can't speak to each other to enable smooth and secure sharing of patient health information and the digital networks that connect these electronic systems -- health information exchanges -- are largely unable to accept data passed between providers, Frisse said. That makes it more likely that health providers will repeat tests, duplicate laboratory work or miscalculate side effects of medications.
Roughly 140 attendees at Thursday's conference grappled with these issues of moving patient information online, and some of the problems that may create. Experts made the case that providers must communicate their problems in order to drive innovation in the industry.
"Sharing patient information is working for some people to some degree, but it's really in its early stages and these are the places we're seeing things morph," Frisse said. "The whole point of motivating HIE has always been in my mind to allow us to say, 'When I see a patient, my decisions are informed by every bit of information that is out there.' "
The conference focused, in part, on the need to make interoperability of health data systems more practical and affordable.
"We must have a common set of capabilities, and national standards, so our health care technologies and electronic records systems can communicate the same way," Frisse said. "When every medical records professional or hospital administrator or practice leader has to try to deal with this, that's an awful big burden to put on people. We've got to make it simpler."
Jeffery Stevenson, a primary care physician at Marin General Hospital, said he encounters medical records on a regular basis that have missing patient information.
"In primary care, we do pills, shots and referrals, and we need to be able to check what medicine they're taking, why they may have stopped and what a doctor was thinking in making those decisions," Stevenson said. "When you look at medical decisions that harm patients, or when you look at preventable medical errors, these records are the main reason they're occurring."
Stevenson agreed with Frisse's idea that health information technology is currently at stage 1.0.
Stevenson said that because patients often receive care from a patchwork of clinics -- ranging from a flu shot at the drug store to a procedure in an emergency room to a screening at a specialist's office -- the need for more coordinated care is critical as medical records are moved online.
"We can't go to 2.0 without figuring out what the problems are," Stevenson said. "These collisions are opportunities, not problems."
Will Ross, project manager for the conference, said one goal is to open up this dialogue to providers at every level, to work on technology breakthroughs in the industry.
"There are both policy-based and market-based drivers for innovation and change," Ross said. "We try to approach the conference from the perspective of how do we make health records interoperable at every level."