Privacy, profiteering and other perils of computerized health records

BHN finally caught up on the ongoing series on health information technology, or HIT, running on The Huffington Post. Some of this ground has been covered elsewhere – privacy, issues with patient access and conflict of interest for former senator and quasi-lobbyist Tom Daschle.

Still, take note of the recent report on the digital divide. And when the Huff Po team started following the money, they produced a solid piece on the feeding frenzy for federal stimulus money.

The competition among companies has spawned a wealth of sales gimmicks. One firm offers a “cash-for-clunkers”-inspired deal that gives doctors $3,000 in rebates if they junk their current system for a new model.  Another has announced interest-free loans to doctors that won’t come due until their stimulus checks arrive. Even Wal-Mart has begun selling a “turnkey” digital health records system through Sam’s Club.

A super group of major tech firms has banded together and hit the road with what they call a “stimulus tour” to boost sales. So far, the tour, which includes officials from Microsoft, Dell and Allscripts-Misys Healthcare Solutions, has played in more than 30 cities. It stops at local convention centers and hotels, where it holds seminars for doctors. Those who attend receive a “customized stimulus analysis of how much money your practice could earn in federal incentives.”

The marketing blitz comes amid a simmering debate over how closely government should keep watch over the young, but fast-galloping industry. Officials expect electronic health records to transform the practice of medicine by greatly improving the quality of care and sharply cutting costs

Yet federal officials don’t require the same degree of testing, safety inspections or marketing oversight for electronic records systems as for many types of medical devices. While tech firms believe strict regulation of the industry would stifle innovation, critics want to clamp down.

Critics got their wish in the form of that defender of government oversight, Republican Chuck Grassley.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, has asked 31 hospitals and health systems across the country in a  Jan. 19 letter to advise him of any problems with their computer systems and any “issues or concerns that have been raised by your health care providers” over the past two years.

“Hospitals are on the front lines and their perspective will be very valuable in this effort, so I look forward to hearing what they have to say about expanded use of health care information technology,” Grassley said Wednesday in a statement.

Mass General and the Brigham got the letter, according to the story.  Oddly, Tufts also got the letter but Beth Israel – which has a very active HIT program – did not.

Keep an eye on the site for more. It seems some of the key players didn’t want to talk to the Huff Po team. BHN would like to see a few more comments from the Office of the National Coordinator, the federal agency running the operation.

Also, since this work is a product of the Huff Po Investigative FUND, we’re hoping that means that –unlike many other contributors to the liberal-leaning web site — these folks got paid for their work.

Finally, for more on how this is playing out here in Massachusetts,  check out this radio piece on wiring health care in Newburyport, Mass. by BHN senior writer Tinker Ready.

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