May 2009 | | Issue 5
Health Management Technology

EHR Adoption Challenging, Worth the Effort - says John Halamka, M.D.

Addressing the sixth annual SAS Healthcare and Life Sciences Executive Conference, keynote speaker John Halamka, M.D., says transitioning to electronic health records (EHR) can potentially create as many as 50,000 new jobs, save the nation millions of dollars in healthcare costs and simplify the healthcare delivery system. He also expects the transition to be difficult. Halamka is CIO for Harvard Medical School and also serves as the chair of the Health Information Technology Standards Panel.

Despite the potential benefits of broad EHR adoption, he pointed out that there are several significant barriers to entry for many, including the continuing development of the technology and privacy concerns, before widespread implementation can take place. Lack of a single set of standards for identifying medical information by physicians, insurers, pharmacists and others involved that would prevent electronic communication trouble between each is another issue needing addressing, Halamka says. How to pay for the hardware also is something yet to be determined. By Halamka's estimates, the federal stimulus money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) should net about $19 billion to develop EHRs and health information exchanges over the next five years. However, about $44,000 of it per physician, will be doled out over the span of the next five years in the form of Medicare reimbursements - an arrangement requiring doctors to finance their EHR implementations up front.

"Technology needs to be developed to maximize ease of use for physicians, as well," Halamka said, suggesting that regional healthcare information technology centers using cloud computing systems might be a better model. And still to be determined are the daunting issues of privacy concerns. Halamka says public opinion on the privacy issue is split, citing a National Public Radio survey reporting 76 percent of people feel EHRs are a positive step toward healthcare reform, but 72 percent believe at some point their privacy will be violated. Halamka suggested using an opt-in program to allow patients to decide if the risk of a privacy violation is worth the benefits of the service.