Hospitals consider paper-free records

Doctor and patient.

TEXT OF STORY

TESS VIGELAND: You go online to buy books, to read the news, even to order pizza. Now, patients at New York Presbyterian may also be able to see the results of their latest blood test. The hospital is the first major institution to offer patients their own digital health records. The program started this week. Sally Herships conducted a check up -- to find out if the new system might ultimately tamp down on healthcare costs.


Sally Herships: Patrice Cohen is wearing sparkly earrings and a low cut v-neck. She looks pretty good. Especially for someone who just had her sternum cracked open. Cohen had open heart surgery just a couple months ago -- serious stuff. But the scar from her operation is smaller then her pile of medical records.

Patrice Cohen: I saw the file one day and I actually had to make a joke, am I really that sick? It's about, you know, eight inches high.

Cohen is 50. She lives in New Jersey. She has some other conditions too. And a lot of doctors.

Cohen: A cardiologist, I have a nephrologist, I have a rheumotologist, and then of course my GP. And of course, I guess, my gynecologist.

The doctors at the hospital where Cohen had her surgery, New York Presbyterian, are trying something new. Instead of paper they're offering digital records. Cohen can now access her files online. She says if the country's whole healthcare system went digital, patients like her wouldn't need to waste their time with duplicate paperwork.

Cohen: You go to a new doctor, you fill out all these new forms. What medication do you take? What allergies do you have? What surgeries have you had? When have you had them?

In the meantime she says her doctors are glad they no longer have to be pen pals. Waiting for reports to be faxed and mailed can cause delays. Instead she says, she logs on to her account and prints out whatever they need. Ashley Katz is executive director of the non-profit organization Patient Privacy Rights. Katz says, while there may be benefits to health information technology, there are risks too.

Ashley Katz: So people can do really good things with that information and then they can do really bad things.

Katz says without strong privacy protections in place employers and insurers may be able to see private data. Say someone is taking medication that's expensive or for an embarrassing condition.

Katz: So say they're taking an anti-depresant or an anti-anxiety medication, or something for a sexually transmitted disease.

Medical information, Katz says, can easily influence what employers and insurers think. A person's abilities and costs can be evaluated, all based on their private medical history. But heart patient Patrice Cohen isn't worried about digital records.

Cohen: One day I went with my whole thick paper file to one of my doctors and I left without it. First of all I had to figure out where I left it.

She got her files back. And now, she says, she feels much safer knowing her hospital records are online. And Cohen says while getting stuck with needles doesn't bother her anymore, getting the same procedure twice does -- it can be expensive. Recently she had an EKG. A couple days later she saw her cardiologist. He also wanted to test her heart.

Cohen: I said oh, I just had one done two days ago. So he said OK, then we don't have to do it. Called the GP's office and that was the day he was off.

Those doctors aren't part of New York Presbyterian's system. Their records aren't online. So she had to do the test -- again. Richard Hillestad is a reseacher at the non-profit Rand Corporation. He agrees digitizing health records will save money. But right now he says, most of those savings will go into the pocket of insurers.

Richard Hillestad: Ultimately you would hope that those savings to insurers would be passed on down to reduce health care costs for individuals.

Hillestad says if it were to go completely digital, the country's health care system could save $80 billion. Patrice Cohen has to have her heart surgery again in 15 years. But she says, in medical science that's light years away. Next time she hopes she'll be able to take a pill instead of having an operation. And she says, by then all of her medical records should be online.

In New York, I'm Sally Herships for Marketplace Money.

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