Our Views: Digital age in medicine

In the old days, a student with bad handwriting was told to become a doctor. In these days of computers and smartphones, how relevant is that old joke? Unfortunately, quite relevant, as paper records and a general lack of shareable medical information are thought by reformers to be a problem with American medicine.

This was demonstrated most vividly during the diaspora caused by the flooding of greater New Orleans after levees failed during Hurricane Katrina, and the subsequent evacuation of the Lake Charles area during Hurricane Rita later that dreadful summer of 2005.

Patients and doctors and pharmacies dispersed, Louisiana health officials under the leadership of Dr. Fred Cerise, then head of the Department of Health and Hospitals, improvised Internet sites and other responses to the crisis. Those events, and the looming crisis in medical costs for Medicare and Medicaid to federal and state government, not to mention rising premiums for private insurance, give added impetus to the need for change.

In light of the Katrina and Rita evacuations, it’s appropriate that New Orleans takes the lead in sharing of electronic health records.

The Greater New Orleans Health Information Exchange includes 160 doctors at the LSU Interim Hospital and clinics including the Common Ground Health Clinic, the NO/AIDS Task Force and the Tulane Ruth Fertel Community Health Center. Together, they care for more than 250,000 patients. Other hospitals and clinics in New Orleans and across the state, including in Baton Rouge and Lafayette, are either participating in the project or working on getting linked into a similar statewide exchange.

The idea: reduce duplicate forms and tests, hospital readmissions and waits for specialist referrals. Patients’ primary care physicians are automatically notified when a specialist or other doctor in the exchange treats them.

The idea of secure but accessible electronic medical records is one of the ways that reformers seek to deal with burgeoning health care costs. Among others, Gov. Bobby Jindal as a federal health care planner had promoted the idea, but it is a bipartisan enthusiasm.

It is important not to overstate the immediate cost savings, as errors and excessive tests or treatments are possible, even if the old issue of doctors’ handwriting is avoided. But bringing medical facilities into the digital age is clearly a good idea, if only because the mobility of Americans — not to mention future evacuees in hurricanes or other disasters — means that patients may seek attention for medical problems when far from their homes.