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Doctors' digital duty

Wayne Owens and Frank Richards say a dated medical-technology system is in a state of emergency.

When disaster strikes, the country pulls together, making an effort to learn from the tragedy and minimize the impact of future disasters.

Yet there are between 44,000 and 98,000 deaths per year in the United States due to medical errors, many of which are the result of health care system problems. This is the equivalent of one or two 737s crashing every day or the number of deaths caused by Hurricane Katrina times more than 40.

What can help prevent this quiet tragedy? In a November letter to the San Jose Mercury News, a reader said his father "died in spite of having excellent doctors and dedicated nurses. He died because medical care has become incredibly complex and because, as a nation, we have not devoted enough attention to implementing electronic medical record systems."

Little more than 10 percent of the nation's physicians (in 2005) had adopted electronic medical technology.

The letter's author is CEO of the Permanente Medical Group--one of the largest networks of hospitals in the country.

Unfortunately, statistics don't paint a more optimistic picture. A 2005 study conducted by the Medical Group Management Association, found that little more than 10 percent of the nation's physicians had adopted electronic medical technology. In larger hospitals, only about 35 percent of doctors have adopted the technology.

It's not surprising, then, that Hurricane Katrina destroyed an estimated 1 million paper health care records.

In the face of this national embarrassment, the Bush administration called for electronic records for most Americans by 2014 and a national health information network that links the nation's hospitals and doctors.

Yet movement forward has not been nearly as fast as it could be because of, among other reasons, lack of technological standards, implementation costs and legal hurdles.

This is why meaningful Congressional legislation that begins to deal with these issues should be passed this year. These issues should not be set aside, leaving a new Congress to start over on them. The House of Representatives took an important step when it passed legislation this summer that would help health care providers apply for grants to help implement new technologies, remove legal barriers to implementation and foster the creation of regional health information networks.

The Senate unanimously passed a more robust bill last November that included additional funds and also ensured uniform standards for keeping electronic health care records to guarantee compatibility across different networks.

With relatively few days left in this congressional session, we are hopeful that House and Senate leaders can resolve the differences between their respective bills and give President Bush high-quality legislation to sign. We are also encouraged by the president's August signing of an executive order that will require that all providers of federally financed health care to adopt quality-measuring tools and uniform standards for their information technology.

Still, Silicon Valley is not sitting back, waiting for government to act. Technology's best are teaming with health care providers from across the country.

Our two companies are developing an electronic health record-sharing system to eventually link the records and lab results of 3.5 million patients in Pennsylvania and make their information accessible in regional hospitals and health systems.

As other localities across the nation create similar systems, they will be able to link together to fulfill the ultimate goal of creating a national network for health care information. Research firm Gartner thinks the money that will go into this effort will pay off in innumerable saved lives. They predict that "it could enable clinicians to reduce the level of preventable deaths by 50 percent by 2013."

Still, the United States is playing catch-up. The United Kingdom, for example, is so convinced of the benefits of electronic records and a health care network that it's spending $17 billion to wire every hospital, clinic and doctor's office in the country. The country's National Health Service is rapidly improving health care delivery for its citizens while looking to reap economic and productivity benefits for its national health program.

Nearly three out of four Americans believe strongly that electronic medical records can make the difference between life and death in emergencies. It's time to recognize that our dated medical system is in a state of emergency and act with urgency to make it state-of-the-art.