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Tools That Help With Health Care and Costs

Electronic health records benefit patients

More hospitals and doctors' offices are using health information technology (health IT). And that's good news for patients.

See also: Connect with your doctor electronically.

One of the most popular uses of health IT is the electronic health record. These records put your health information — medical history, medicines, allergies, test results and more — in one place. This saves you and your medical team time. It also reduces the chance of an error — such as getting a drug you're allergic to. A complete electronic health record is particularly helpful in an emergency.

Work supported by my agency, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, shows how health IT tools can save time and money. They can help prevent trips to the hospital emergency room and even prevent life-threatening conditions.

Other types of health IT tools can help your medical team provide safer, more effective care. They also can assist you in making good decisions for you and your family.

For example, when kids get sick at school or day care, parents often must leave work to go to the doctor's office or hospital ER. Just over half (57 percent) of men and women had access to paid sick days in 2009, a recent survey found. That means that minor illnesses, easily treated, can end up costing a lot of money in health bills and lost wages.

But technology is allowing a child's own doctor, with parents' permission, to make a "virtual" office visit to schools and day care centers.

Through technology, trained assistants can use equipment, like special cameras and an electronic stethoscope, to arrange virtual visits with children's doctors. Physicians diagnose, prescribe and discuss treatments with parents and school staff over a secure Internet connection.

The Health-e-Access Telemedicine program has lowered health costs by more than 23 percent by reducing ER visits. The program includes 10 child care centers and 12 elementary schools in the Rochester, N.Y., area. It is now expanding to assisted living centers and senior day care centers.

Another health IT program makes it less likely that people in nursing homes will develop pressure ulcers.

Pressure ulcers, or bedsores, occur when patients stay in one position too long. People who are bedridden or use a wheelchair are at risk. If not caught early, pressure ulcers can cause serious infections and even become life-threatening.

A computer program called On-Time helps identify patients who are likely to develop pressure ulcers and then creates special care plans and reports. It encourages nurses, nursing assistants, dietitians and others to work closely on care planning and follow up. In the 21 facilities that used this program, the incidence of pressure ulcers declined by more than 42 percent.

Next: No substitute for dedicated health care providers. >>

On-Time is now used in more than 75 nursing homes. New research may show how to prevent other problems in nursing homes, such as falls.

Of course, the best computer program is no substitute for dedicated health care providers and involved patients and families. But when you or a family member gets sick, health IT tools can provide new options for better quality and lower costs.

I believe these tools enhance, but not replace, the doctor-patient relationship. They also make it easier to deliver the right care to the right person at the right time.

I'm Dr. Carolyn Clancy, and that's my advice on how to navigate the health care system.

Carolyn M. Clancy, a general internist and researcher, is an expert in engaging consumers in their health care. She is the director of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

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