Just last month, one of our frequent contributors was championing the transition of medical records from paper to digital form. Now, the issue seems to have bubbled up to the surface of national attention. The Associated Press reported yesterday that recent government and industry initiatives have made the use of electronic medical records more cost effective for physicians.

In October, our Robert N. Charette wrote, in "Dying for Data", that the new National Health Information Network in the U.S. should work primarily as a private-sector effort that has the support of and some funding from the federal government to replace paper-based files with a digital record containing your complete medical history, which your health care provider will be able to access almost instantaneously wherever you seek treatment.

He called the potential advantages of the new system "enormous." For the first time, physicians would have a lifetime view of a patient that would enable them to focus on preventive care, rather than just treating diseases. As a side benefit, health professionals could also conduct epidemiological studies, discover which treatments and medications work best, and provide the means to conduct surveillance for pandemics and biological attacks.

As Charette pointed out, President George W. Bush called for the creation of such a nationwide system in his 2004 State of the Union address, setting an ambitious goal of creating electronic health records for most Americans by the year 2014.

The AP report follows up on how the medical industry has been playing catch-up recently to try to approach some of these ambitious goals. It says that federal officials last month paved the way for hospitals to come to the aid of physicians concerned about the costs of making the transition, allowing the medical institutions to donate record systems to private practices to offset some of the financial burden. Plus, the industry itself has finally agreed on technology standards that let software tools from different companies share data, alleviating some fear among practitioners over their purchasing decisions.

"It's been a month since the [new regulations] were announced, and the increase in engagement has been immediate," Sunny Sanyal, group president for clinical solutions at McKesson Provider Technologies, in San Francisco, told the AP. "Physicians weren't ready to provide a big investment. The fact a hospital can now provide it for them completely changes the picture."

Research firm Jewson Enterprises, based in Austin, Tex., estimates that the new technology sub-sector could grow to as much as US $4.9 billion in sales by 2010. Other analysts noted that it will take time to work through the knotty legal questions surrounding the sharing of patient records and hospital-physician partnerships before the market sees a significant increase in sales, but it will come.

Let's hope it comes sooner than later, for the sake of patients whose lives could be in the balance.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.