The poor quality and high cost of health care in the U.S. is well documented. The widespread adoption of electronic medical records—for purposes of improving quality and reducing costs—is key to reversing these trends. But federal privacy regulations do not set clear and consistent rules for access to health information to improve health care quality. Consequently, the regulations serve as a disincentive to robust analysis of information in medical records and may interfere with efforts to accelerate quality improvements. This essay further explains this disincentive and suggests a potential regulatory path forward.
The U.S. has dedicated approximately 47 billion dollars to improve individual and population health through the use of electronic medical records by health care providers and patients. Much of the funding for this initiative, enacted by Congress as part of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act of 2009, will be used to reimburse physicians and hospitals for the costs of purchasing and implementing electronic medical record systems. The legislation also includes funding to establish infrastructure to enable health care providers to share a patient’s personal health information for treatment and care coordination purposes and for reporting to public health authorities.
Federal policymakers also intend for electronic medical records to be actively used as tools of health system reform. The legislation directs the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop a “nationwide health information technology infrastructure” that improves health care quality, reduces medical errors and disparities, and reduces health care costs from inappropriate or duplicative care.The 2011-2015 Federal Health Information Technology Strategic Plan identifies improving population health, reduction of health care costs, and “achiev[ing] rapid learning” as key goals of federal health information technology initiatives.