Editors Note: Kenny Andersen is a product manager for SunTech Medical, Inc., a firm that develops non-invasive blood pressure monitoring products and technology. He is also moderating a discussion panel at the Council for Entrepreneurial Development’s (CED) upcoming Tech Forum: “Converging Technologies: Where Medical Devices and Information Technology Collide”, set for Jan. 25 in Research Triangle Park.
_________________________________________________________________________________________In 2004, President Bush issued an executive order calling for a plan to ensure most Americans have an electronic health record within the next 10 years. It is widely believed that longstanding problems of preventable errors, uneven quality, and rising costs in healthcare are closely connected to a failure to utilize information technology as an integral part of medical care.

When considering the current compatibility challenges facing both medical device and health information technology companies, it is important to recognize the numerous forces at play working both for and against this initiative.

Electronic Health Records (EHRs)

EHRs provide an electronic record of patient health information such as the patient chart, prescription information, test results, and billing information. Currently, a typical patient’s medical records are mostly scattered among different care providers and often unavailable when needed most – in times of emergency care.

Establishing EHRs for every American would allow rapid sharing of medical information across the current fragmented system of physician, hospital, and emergency care providers. Care could be improved by eliminating redundant testing, avoiding preventable medical errors, and improving efficiency by automating drug prescriptions and submission of payment claims.

Current Adoption

With the offered advantages of improved care and efficiency, meeting the President’s goal of widespread EHR adoption might seem a simple task. However, despite the benefits, adoption of EHR systems has been very low. A recent study by the Medical Group Management Association (MGMA) showed that just over 14% of all medical group practices use an EHR. The costs involved with purchasing and implementing an EHR system are simply too daunting for many physicians.

To promote adoption, there is debate in congress on whether the federal government should help finance the health care industry’s switch to electronic health records with incentives, loans or other measures. Also to be considered is the potential financial payback that EHRs can provide a practice by reducing overhead and staffing costs and adding capacity to treat more patients. However, the value of something that can significantly improve the quality and workflow of treating patients should drive adoption as well. This will only occur if there is real ability for data sharing or “interoperability” between clinics, different EHR systems and medical devices.

Interoperability Standards and Proprietary Boundaries

The promised benefits of reduced errors, cost savings and improved overall care will not be realized until medical devices, EHR systems and applications have the capacity to share clinical data. Many companies currently offer systems that integrate medical data into a digital format and deliver it through a computer interface, but the need is for full compatibility between different products, making the data completely portable.

There are many groups from both government and industry working on establishing standards for EHRs, medical devices and how they communicate. The international organization for Health Language 7 (HL7) has helped define the set of functions needed in an EHR, and most available products use a form of it currently. However, because many companies are not eager to take exclusivity away from their products, they often make slight tweaks and changes to the existing standards, effectively making their products and systems proprietary technology.

Only with established standards and the federal government’s influence on companies to implement them completely will we achieve true compatibility between EHRs and medical devices. Otherwise, it will become increasingly difficult for caregivers to effectively identify and purchase systems or devices that share data, and we may end up with a healthcare system that is even more fragmented than it is currently.

CED: www.cednc.org