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White House panel calls for universal exchange language for health care information

Washington—It is time to move from conventional electronic health records “to a more medically useful and secure system in which individual bits of health care data are tagged with privacy and security specifications,” says a White House panel of scientists.

“The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has undertaken this report to examine the critical issues for the next phase, which has just begun, and to make specific recommendations to the Administration to ensure that the full promise of health IT is realized,” said their report to the president, executive branch IT agencies and, by extension, the nation’s health professionals and patients.

Nor is getting there from here any great technological leap, the panel said. It’s more a matter of universal language and “Realizing the Full Potential of Health Information Technology to Improve Healthcare for Americans.”

Implementation of PCAST’s recommendation to designate a universal language for health information would not require health professionals to replace their existing electronic health records systems, most of which could be made compatible through “apps” and other “middleware,” the panel said.

The report recommends that the Department of Health and Human Services develop guidelines to spur adoption of an exchange language for use by health information technology systems. That would facilitate a transition from traditional electronic health records, whose usefulness is largely limited to a single physician’s office, to the “more medically useful and secure system” advocated by the science and technology panel.

“Despite this great promise, the impact of IT on health care over the past decade has so far been modest,” the executive summary says. “Currently, almost 80 percent of physicians—the majority in small, independent practices—lack even rudimentary digital records.

“Where electronic records do exist, they are typically limited in functionality and poor in interoperability. As a result, the ability to integrate electronic health information about a patient and exchange it among clinical providers remains the exception rather than the rule. Compared to other industrialized nations, the United States lags far behind in the use of electronic health records.”

A fully functional electronic health care information system would enable doctors to contact patients directly, solicit patient feedback related to specific conditions and compile actionable feedback to the practice, the report said.

“Electronic health information also can improve coordination of care by ensuring that every specialist, in every setting, has the same accurate and up-to-date information about a patient. This is especially important with patients who are seeing multiple specialists, with patients making transitions between care settings and especially in emergency settings.”