Experts lay out future of health IT at PHAT conference

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Paper medical records—the 19th century tools still used by most 21st century medical providers—are a big part of what’s ailing the United States’ health care system, Harvard School of Public Health Associate Professor Ashish Jha told an audience of representatives from academia, government, and industry gathered at the Harvard Club of Boston for the 3rd Annual Public Health & Technology (PHAT) Conference. Hosted by the Public Health and Technology Student Forum at HSPH on April 25, this year’s event focused on enabling the adoption of health information technology to transform patient care.

Jha described difficulties that he has faced as a physician that could have been prevented if patients had an electronic medical record accessible by any health care provider. For example, he once prescribed expensive tests for a confused, elderly woman in the emergency room only to discover that she had already had them at another hospital. More than 400 studies have shown that health IT improves the quality of health care, he said.

The keynote speaker was David Blumenthal of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, who spent two years as the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology under President Barack Obama. He discussed his challenging mandate to build an interoperable private and secure nationwide health information system and to develop guidelines for “meaningful use” of electronic health records, which doctors and hospitals must meet by 2012 in order to receive financial incentives through Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. The guidelines include 14 core functions, such as prescribing electronically and keeping a medication list for patients.

Throughout his tenure, Blumenthal worked to keep health care quality a higher priority than the technology, he said. Two years later, the concept of heath information technology is widely accepted and the pace of doctors and hospitals adding systems is accelerating. The government is providing assistance to help providers navigate their options as more companies jump into the health IT marketplace, he said.