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AARP’s One-Minute Guide to Health Care Information Technology

What’s at Stake:

The Wired for Health Care Quality Act, S. 1693, would direct how your personal medical records are stored—and accessed.  Instead of your doctor recording your office visits, surgeries, prescriptions, and other notes in paper files, the information would be—and, with many doctors and hospitals around the country, already is—put into a computer database. Legislation now before Congress would standardize the process so that medical records could be transferred from one place to another in the same format. It would build on the Bush administration’s Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology by increasing funding for that body and by authorizing it to develop a “strategic plan” to implement electronic medical technology nationwide by 2014.

What Proponents Say:

The bill’s proponents say it would streamline medical information, making it easier for doctors and emergency rooms to get instant access to a patient’s records before treatment. For example, if a badly injured patient were allergic to a particular medication, the doctor would be able to ascertain that fact before administering drugs—even if the patient couldn’t talk. And proponents say it would save money in the health care industry by eliminating millions of pages of medical records, which cost millions of dollars to create, maintain, and store. They also say that electronic records are more accurate. As many as 98,000 Americans die each year as a result of medical errors, according to the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine. For instance, pharmacies no longer would have to interpret doctors’ messy handwriting on prescriptions; the scripts all would be typed into a computer.

What Opponents Say:

Most who are opposed to S. 1693 have privacy concerns. Electronic records, they contend, have the potential to be breached, and the misuse of medical information could hurt consumers. The privacy of the records might be compromised and could keep someone from getting a job, for example. Some people might be so afraid of potential mishandling of computerized records that they might withhold medical information altogether, thus jeopardizing the entire system.

Legislative Timeline: 

The time seems to be right for movement on S. 1693. This summer, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, reached agreement with Sens. Edward Kennedy and Michael Enzi on a privacy amendment, which was added to the legislation. In addition, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has crafted a compromise bill that has reworked the privacy concerns to set standards for the “least amount of data” to be shared among billing agencies or other non-medical personnel.

Where AARP Stands:

AARP is in favor of Health IT legislation. Dr. Byron Thames, a member of the AARP Board of Directors, testified before Congress that enacting Health IT would save money and help consumers. “If Health IT legislation is not enacted, our health care system will continue to be mired in paperwork,” he said. “Thousands of lives and billions of dollars will be needlessly lost.” AARP says the legislation will help reduce medical errors and improve the safety, effectiveness, and efficiency of care. AARP believes the bill already addresses privacy concerns by setting up a federal panel to set privacy rules for digital medical records.

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