Despite initial costs of electronic-record sharing, the savings would be even higher

Health-care leaders must not give up on more than a year's worth of work to create a metro-area system for sharing patients' electronic medical records.

The health-care benefits of such a system are simply too great for this project to be derailed. Better electronic sharing of patient medical records should be of primary interest to physicians and hospitals, but it is patients in need of care who would gain the most from an instantaneous health-records exchange.

Electronic-record sharing has been explored by the Oregon Business Council's Health Data Exchange Group as part of an effort to improve medical care and reduce costs.

Unfortunately, the project now appears stalled for many reasons, including concern over the ultimate cost to hospitals and physicians, the potential for lost revenue and the complexity of linking existing medical-record systems now being used by hospitals and many doctors.

The monetary savings from electronically sharing records - estimated at $17 million annually - would be but one reason to pursue change. Improved medical care for patients is another.

With regional record sharing in place, the time to treat a patient could be reduced. Patients who get shuttled from doctor to doctor no longer would have to be subjected to repeated, redundant and expensive medical tests.

Those who are chronically ill and being treated by a variety of doctors would have the assurance that each of their physicians is aware of medications or treatments being prescribed by another.

Hospitals would lose revenue

We realize that the concept of sharing medical records is a difficult one to achieve.

While patients and health insurance companies would save significantly, it would cost an estimated $3.4 million for hospitals and clinics to set up the record-sharing system - and more each year in staffing costs to run it.

Revenues from medical tests also would be at risk for some providers - local hospitals could lose a projected $10 million each year from testing that would be eliminated through sharing of patient records.

Some advocates of health-care reform might be tempted to rail against a medical system that protects the financial interests of hospitals at the expense of patients and their insurers.

But the hospitals aren't to blame. Many are established as nonprofit organizations. While they may make money in lucrative portions of their business - such as medical imaging tests - they often are left without the ability to recover the cost of medical care for uninsured patients.

Give hospitals reasons to participate

Looking forward, we see two paths to implement medical-record sharing: By government requirement or by private-sector action. We strongly favor the latter and suggest that supporters of the record-sharing system find financial incentives for hospitals to participate.

Portland is one of many regions in the country trying to improve the quality of medical care and reduce costs by creating a record-sharing organization. Locally, we have some advantages, because 59 percent of physicians in the metro area already are storing records electronically. The records just need to be linked.

We are confident that the many smart people involved with this project can put it back on track. Patient record sharing is but one component of overall health-care reform. Yet, if we cannot figure this one out, what hope is there for overall comprehensive reform?

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