While patients may hugely benefit from having access to their own medical records, many hospitals and physicians are still very reluctant to provide patients with a copy of their records.
Although taxpayers have partly paid for the majority of hospitals to adopt electronic health records systems, which reduce the cost of reproducing medical records to effectively zero, some of them continue to charge patients exorbitant fees for access to their records. While imposing these charges is against the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations, some medical providers take advantage of patients’ unfamiliarity with such regulations and use HIPAA and patient privacy as excuses to avoid releasing patient records.
Now, in an unprecedented lawsuit against MedStar Georgetown University Hospital and George Washington University Hospital, three patients are seeking class-action status, saying they were charged hundreds to thousands of dollars for a copy of their electronic medical records.
According to the Nielsen survey earlier this month by the Council of Accountable Physician Practices and the Bipartisan Policy Center, the majority of medical providers in the United States still do not use emails or text messages to communicate with their patients, despite the fact that such communication channels are in very high demand from the patients.
The survey results are appalling. After all, when you receive text message reminders about your upcoming credit card bill or ask your airline a question about your flight reservation via email, why can’t you communicate with your doctor in the same convenient way? Why are we still using the technology of the 20th century to communicate with our doctors in the 21stcentury?
The answer has three sides to it: Economics, technology management and regulations.
There is optimism that Congress will soon pass the 21st Century Cures bill. The draft bill proposed by the House Energy and Commerce Committee aims to foster medical innovation by streamlining the FDA regulatory process and increasing NIH research funding by $10 billion. The draft bill has overwhelming bipartisan support and will benefit patients, medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies. However, it also includes a passage, which aims to amend the Sunshine Act and exempt pharmaceutical companies from reporting the payments they make to physicians for continued medical education (CME) programs. The supporters of this change argue that physicians learn about the latest developments in medical science through CME programs and that requiring the disclosure of these payments would discourage pharmaceutical companies from financially supporting educational programs. Ultimately they believe it could inhibit the diffusion of medical innovation among doctors.
I took a look at the data released by CMS on the financial transactions between the pharmaceutical companies and individual physicians. In the last five months of 2013, more than $120 million were paid to physicians who participated (as faculty or speakers) in CME programs. The payments constitute 26 percent of the total financial transactions between pharma and individual physicians. The proposed change essentially allows pharmaceutical companies to hide more than a quarter of their payments to physicians. Exempting the pharmaceutical companies from reporting the largest part of their financial relationship with doctors will not help to foster medical education, rather it will add to current suspicions about the unjustified impact of such payments on the drugs that physicians prescribe to their patients.
If CME programs legitimately increase the awareness of physicians about the latest medical innovations and provide them with unbiased information about new drugs, then both pharmaceutical companies and those physicians who serve as speakers and faculties of such programs should be extremely proud of their role as champions of innovation and envoys of the latest knowledge in the medical community. If that is the case, one would wonder why they wouldn’t embrace and support the efforts that shed light on their noble role.
Patients heavily rely on the recommendations of their doctors to make any kind of decision regarding their health and thus have the right to be informed about the possibility that their doctors have a conflict of interest. Congress should refrain from amending the Sunshine Act and avoid jeopardizing the patients’ right to have access to information.
Niam Yaraghi is a fellow at the Brookings Institute Center For Technology Innovation. His posts appear regularly on THCB and on the Brookings Institute Tech Talk blog, where this post first appeared. This post also appeared as an opinion column on the US News and World Report site.
Many years before the creation of Healthcare.gov, President Obama embraced data analytics during his early years in the Senate.
In 2006, he and senator Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) successfully sponsored the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act, which resulted in creation of usaspending .gov, “a significant tool that makes it much easier to hold elected officials accountable for the way taxpayer money is spent“.
A History of Failed Federal IT Projects
A considerable amount of taxpayer money is spent on federal IT projects, but in contrast to the aspirations of Obama in his early years in the Senate, it is not spent responsibly.
According to the Standish Group report, from 2003 to 2012 only 6% of the federal IT projects with over 10 million dollars of labor cost were successful.
52% of them were either delayed, went over budget or did not meet user expectations. The remaining 41% of the IT projects were abandoned or started from scratch. Perhaps most troubling is that healthcare.gov is just a one example among many.