We look forward to the demise of the physician's file cabinet, where inch-thick files make quick reference difficult and impede the communication between family practitioner, a hospital and the several specialists who are a part of many peoples' lives. That paper file should be on a hard drive, where instant dissemination and computer search functions are possible. With the technology of the 21st century, Americans will be more apt to receive better health care.
In this, the military will be leading the way.
According to a recent news story, the Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs will begin working on a combined data-management system that will hold administrative and health information for the military services' men and women. The electronic record keeping will begin with military recruits and continue through retirement and the receipt of any veterans' services. The electronic record keeping will more easily accompany reassigned troops during active duty and facilitate the delivery of veterans' services, if need be. It is not difficult to imagine an individual accumulating 65 years of health records, from enlistment at age 22 until death at 87, that will be accessible from the patient's location with a few keystrokes.
That this health-care record keeping initiative by the military could serve as a precursor for maintaining health records for the general population is clear.
Also equally intriguing, too, is how searchable health data - with individuals' names protected - might improve insights into national health-care issues. State and federal surveys, research centers and extrapolating from hospital reports now gives direction to those who direct the nation's broad health-care efforts. Access to databases from millions of patients - while keeping names secret - would provide more accurate and quicker decision making. That could result in the delivery of more targeted health care, with better results, and likely at a savings in cost.
Doctors initially were resistant to converting paper files into electronic records. There is no standard format yet, and the scanning would be slow and expensive. Protecting patient privacy is ingrained in the medical community, and some doctors have real concerns about the risks of making health-care records so accessible from a distance. But we would hope that sooner rather than later there would be agreement on common software, and that federal incentives might offset some of the costs.
The military does move slowly, so it is uncertain to us how long it will take to make significant progress on introducing the electronic record keeping. But that the military has made that commitment is sure to accelerate the debate over putting civilian heath-care records into electronic formats. The sooner the better, we say.