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How is the U.S. implementing electronic medical records?

HITECH and Meaningful Use
The meaningful use guidelines will help doctors become accustomed to using the technology with patients.
The meaningful use guidelines will help doctors become accustomed to using the technology with patients.
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The part of the stimulus bill that deals with electronic medical records is known as the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH). HITECH approves payments to doctors and hospitals that adopt electronic medical records; a grand total of $27 billion will be available to medical professionals over the next 10 years [source: Alonso-Zaldivar]. Each doctor could receive as much as $44,000 through Medicare and $63,750 through Medicaid to buy and implement a system [source: Pear]. Doctors and hospitals that don't integrate this technology will be subject to cuts in Medicare payments in 2015.

To qualify for the funds, medical professionals are required to use programs from vendors that are certified by the government. The certification standards were released in August 2010 and are designed to ensure that the medical records will be able to be accessed and shared throughout the country. Secondly, the medical professionals who purchase the programs must actually use them, because as we mentioned on the last page, the system won't work unless there's a widespread network of doctors participating. To ensure that patients and providers receive the maximum benefit from the government's investment, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has released meaningful use standards. Doctors and hospitals must meet these standards in order to qualify for their incentive payments.

The meaningful use standards were developed with input from medical professionals. For example, HHS originally set forth 23 objectives for hospitals and 25 for doctor's offices. After receiving feedback that these guidelines would be too difficult to meet in one or two years, the standards changed. Now, there's a set of 15 core objectives that medical professionals seeking incentives must meet. These objectives include recording patient demographics, recording vital signs and chart changes, and ordering prescriptions via the electronic system. In addition, there's a separate menu of 10 activities, of which doctors must choose five to implement -- transferring patients' records in the event that they switch doctors, for example.

The objectives are designed to get medical professionals comfortable with the new technology while moving them toward the level of activity they'll need to reach to make the system truly effective. And while the system vendor should provide training on how to perform these tasks, the government is sponsoring regional health IT extension centers to those professionals that need a little more help with the technology.

To learn about other changes that may be coming to your doctor's office soon, see the links on the next page.

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