Stimulus could help medical exchange

February 2, 2009

 President Barack Obama's economic stimulus bill provides a big opportunity for the Indianapolis-based Indiana Health Information Exchange to spread its expertise around the country. Obama's bill, as it currently stands, would spend $2 billion to help communities build health information exchange networks.

Exchange CEO Marc Overhage said more of the money must go toward health information networks in order to realize the potential improvements in quality, safety and cost that Obama and Congress are counting on. Policymakers hope broad, computerized swapping of medical records could give doctors better information when treating patients and reduce costly prescription drug errors.

"If you have islands of electronic health records, you really haven't got much," Overhage said. But, he added, "You can accomplish a lot with health information exchange even before you have electronic health records deployed everywhere."

The Indiana Health Information Exchange delivers patient health re cords and quality reports to doctors via the Internet, meaning doctors do not need a special electronic medical record system to receive the information. Adoption of such systems, which replace paper files, has been slow among doctors due to high costs and time lost for installation.

Overhage would like to see 80 percent of the stimulus money—or $16 billion—go toward building networks and helping hospitals and doctors automate their work-flow processes. The rest could go to pay for doctors to add electronic health record systems.

The organization created a company called Mergetics Inc. last year to help other cities set up health information networks similar to the Indiana Health Information Exchange.

The advantages of launching copycats could be large. The Indiana Health Information Exchange is based on 35 years of work by the Indianapolis-based Regenstrief Institute Inc. If governments adopt different standards for swapping medical records and storing them, the head start Indiana now enjoys would be out the window.

Also, local life sciences leaders hope Mergetics wins clients that want it to handle their medical records databases. Housing such information in Indianapolis would create a huge pool of information that could attract researchers and, perhaps, spawn life sciences companies.

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