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When doctors go digital

Will digitizing medical records really eliminate red tape at your doctor’s office? We can dream…

I keep seeing more and more news items about handheld computers equipped for doctors. Palm and IBM have teamed up to equip med students with handheld drug and diagnosis reference guides. Handspring has just introduced four new medical-reference Springboard modules. According to CNET, General Motors has teamed up with Medscape, a digital health records company, to give handhelds to 5,000 doctors who treat GM employees. The handheld market potential for health care is obvious: So many patients. So much paperwork. So little time to treat. So much potential risk. According to the CNET story, one of the problems GM hopes to eliminate with handhelds is the amount of time spent double-checking handwritten prescriptions for about 360,000 GM workers every year. An estimated 30 percent of all U.S. prescriptions must be rechecked each year; I wonder how many patients are prescribed the wrong drugs simply because the prescription was misread.

I have yet to see any of this technology pop up in my doctor’s office, but I say bring it on, and what’s taking so long already? In part, we need it to help us get past the myth of the intimate doctor-patient relationship and catch up to the present. I’d like to know the average number of times the average patient has changed doctors, clinics, and health plans because of a move, job change, or a change in workplace insurance coverage. Every change means another tedious transfer of records by mail or fax. But despite all the hassle you just endured to make sure your new physician or nurse practitioner has updated records, they don’t seem to look at them. Instead, relying on your encyclopedic memory, they’ll look at you and ask, “When was your last tetanus shot? Cholesterol check? Have you been immunized against rubella, measles, and mumps?” There’s no shame on their faces when they ask–they are dead serious. In my imagination, I look back at them just as seriously, and say, “Well, as far as I can recall, it was sometime between 1983 and today, but the exact date would probably be in those records sitting on your desk.”

If either of us had well-organized access to this information at our fingertips–not having to dig through layers of paper, hunting for a shot here, a blood test there–think of how much time, money, and exasperation we’d save. On that note, I believe these companies can find another niche to target with digital medical technology–us, the patients. Kudos to President Bush for preserving the patient medical-privacy rules worked out under the previous administration. Guaranteeing patients access to their own records and to protection against unlawful sharing of their records is crucial as medical histories move from paper to databases, making them (in theory) far easier to manipulate. We should also expect to see improved access and care: We should have digital copies of our medical records, and easier means of transferring them. We should see better databases of doctors by location, specialty, and reputation. And we should be able to share portions of our handheld calendars with the appointment desk and look up medical terms on the fly. Maybe someone will even figure out a way to provide a virtual urine sample. We can only hope.

For more on this issue, see:

“GM to put more handhelds into doctors’ black bags”

“Bush to employ medical privacy rules”

To the Rescue! Taking health care to the Internet was an early tech failure. But e-health got an unexpected boost from the White House last week.

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