Many assume that the health care system in the United States is the best in the world — at least for those who are able to access it. The reality for many people is that our system often fails to deliver quality care, misses many people who need care the most, and suffers from significant inefficiencies that lead to high costs. Even according to conservative estimates, hospital errors are the nation’s eighth leading cause of death — ahead of breast cancer, AIDS and motor vehicle accidents combined.
Preventable medical errors include a wide variety of examples: misidentification of patients; misreading of tests; medication errors, equipment failures; and hospital-acquired infections. Researchers have estimated that your chance of getting the right care at the right time is only slightly more than 50 percent — and it’s worse for women and minorities!
Unfortunately, low-quality health care means high-priced consequences. The combination of overuse, misuse, and underuse accounts for up to 30 percent of our national health care expenditures. Improving the quality of care would make Americans healthier and help us address the skyrocketing costs. With that goal in mind, many policy makers, businesses, health care providers, and provider institutions (such as hospitals) are looking to health information technology (HIT) as a way to improve health care quality.
HIT represents a transition from paper-based to computer-based transactions for health care services. For patients, it can mean that doctors use computers to keep track of patient health information, rather than traditional paper charts. These electronic medical records can help health care providers stay organized and make better clinical decisions. Much of the real value to patients and providers is seen only when multiple providers (and ideally the patient) are able to share medical information electronically whenever and wherever it is needed. This concept is often referred to as health information exchange, or HIE.
Appropriately implemented, HIE has the potential to provide consumers with information to make better decisions about their own health care and the care of their loved ones. An electronic health record that could be accessed by authorized parties would mean that health care providers would be able to access the information they need (medications, lab results, allergies) to make better health care decisions.
While all of this is possible, there are potential risks. Understandably, many consumers are afraid that broader sharing of their personal health information will only make it more vulnerable to unwanted and unintended exposure, which could have significant life-long consequences for their personal, social, and financial wellbeing. While NCL is very supportive of moving forward with health information technology and exchange systems, these initiatives will only succeed if all consumers can be confident that their personal health information is being handled in a secure, appropriate, and confidential manner.
NCL is part of a growing consumer coalition dedicated to seeing that these and other essential conditions are built in to systems emerging across the country. This is a critical time for consumer involvement, as efforts to promote nationwide adoption of health information technology are proceeding rapidly. There is a significant need for strong consumer voices at all levels of this effort — voices that strongly support the promise of health information technology to improve our healthcare system, but that will work to ensure adequate consumer protections.