California is just starting to spend $38 billion dollars in federal stimulus dollars to set up an electronic exchange mechanism that allows patients, doctors, hospitals, laboratories and specialists to share a patient’s health information electronically while preserving and protecting the safety and security of this information. When this electronic health exchange is fully in place, it will mean that health care practitioners will have immediate access to complete, and accurate information about patients’ relevant medical history, medications, and tests.
If you or a family member fell ill or had an accident while on vacation away from home, consider how you would communicate in an unfamiliar setting with a new doctor what prescription drugs you were taking, reliably answer general health history questions, describe current health circumstances. If you had to seek emergency medical treatment or were referred to a specialist, you would want the health professionals taking care of you to know quickly what chronic conditions you have, what medications you are taking, what procedures you have undergone, so they can give you the best, most appropriate emergency care, even if they are not your regular family doctor. Health information exchanges would support that kind of access to information to promote good care and limit costs.
Can health information exchanges be a good thing? What are the benefits?
- They can help reduce costs because there is less duplication of tests and treatments,
- They can avoid medical errors,
- They can help to improve the quality of the patient’s health care, resulting in better health outcomes,
- They can limit adverse interactions among different prescriptions, treatments or tests by different doctors,
- They can reduce health disparities among populations,
- They can help evaluate the comparative effectiveness of treatments and medical practices,
- They can improve the coordination of care,
- They can help measure the quality and performance of physicians and hospitals,
- They can improve the privacy and security of personal health information, and
- They can enable patients to know more about their health status and be a more informed health care consumer.
To ensure we realize those benefits with California’s health information exchange, an unprecedented group of leading consumer, health, and civil rights organizations established a set of key principles over the last six months. These principles were designed to guide California’s policymakers, providers, and other stakeholders in the implementation of the health information exchange and enable them to assess whether their patients’ needs are being met. These organizations include AARP, ACLU, the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network (CPEHN), Consumers Union, The Children’s Partnership, The Pacific Business Group on Health (PBGH), and Health Access California, among others.
These principles advocate for the design of the technology and services to meet the needs of all consumers, including people who speak languages other than English or people with disabilities, ensure the privacy and security of patients’ health information, prevent the misuse of patient data, promote the greater health literacy among patients, providers, and public health officials, and enforce the protections for patients and specific communities.
We think health information exchanges are a good development, especially as they are set up in California to adopt these consumer-focused founding principles. We look forward to the unfolding of this new era of patient empowerment and access to information–and better, more efficient, and less costly health care.