It’s not talked about too often, but Barack Obama actually signed two health care reform bills in his first term. Obamacare may get all the media attention — but the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, passed as part of the stimulus bill in 2009, also took important steps to fix the broken American health care system. And now, it’s paying off big time as doctors flock to electronic health records (EHRs) that save money and improve Americans’ medical care.
The HITECH Act appropriated about $35 billion to expand the use of health information technology and implement a countrywide system of EHRs. This was seen as vital for overcoming the massive number of problems fostered by paper medical records, which ranged from the mildly inconvenient to the potentially fatal.
For instance, paper records are extremely susceptible to breaches of patient privacy, since their security is entirely dependent on the doctors and nurses who handle them. They’re also unwieldy, can get lost, contribute to significant backlogs in claims processing systems, and can lead to redundant tests and procedures. A particularly damning series of reports in 2006 and 2007 further indicated that paper records kill over 7,000 Americans every year and injure another 1.5 million through “unclear abbreviations and dosage indications and illegible writing” that doctors write for prescription medication.
Providers and health information technology companies alike realized that the era of paper records had to end in order to curb these inefficiencies and preventable injuries and deaths. But upgrading to the new digital systems would require a massive up-front investment — and that’s what made the HITECH Act vital. Now, new government data shows that the law has fostered an environment where doctors’ use of EHRs has gone up by more than 250 million times compared to 2011. As The Hill reports, this included 200 million electronic prescriptions, 13 million appointment reminders, and four million care summaries.
Using the technology for those purposes is also critical to the functioning of the other major health reform law, Obamacare, as it brings millions of Americans into the medical system and attempts to make U.S. health care more efficient. EHRs have already been helping so-called “accountable care organizations” (ACOs) — one of the ACA’s most important cost-saving and quality improvement experiments — function properly.
ACOs require disparate elements of American medical care, including doctors, nurses, social workers, and pharmacists, to coordinate their efforts and give patients a unified “medical neighborhood” that is responsible for the entirety of a patient’s needs. They do this by tracking and treating a patient’s conditions, making sure that they’re taking their medications, and even informing family members how their relatives are doing. But doing so requires extensive and precise information-sharing by many different health care workers — and that would be nearly impossible without EHRs. InformationWeek reports that the new health IT is used at almost every step of an ACO’s patient’s care and help make data about medication and lab work readily available. New government data shows that all current ACOs improved the quality of the care they provide, and many saw cost-savings that are only expected to grow in the future as that improved care leads to healthier patients who won’t have to keep coming back to the hospital.
Some critics have pointed out that EHRs can also make it easier for doctors to defraud the system, since they can bill insurers for phantom services with the click of a button. Fortunately, recent studies have suggested that may not happen, since EHRs can display the cost of a procedure or drug and make recommendations about cheaper alternatives — advice that doctors tend to follow.
Lawmakers and media figures continue to make dire predictions over the fate of the Affordable Care Act, and some providers have been less effective at switching over to EHRs than others. But by and large, the digitization of American medical care is well underway and proceeding exactly as planned.