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GE launches eHealth, hopes for early adopters

The eHealth suite aims to connect clinicians and patients in a highly secure platform, but relies in part on early adopters paid by the federal government.

The government's $19 billion incentive package to compel doctors and hospitals to digitize their inefficient paper record systems is nice and shiny. But until a platform exists to support the easy yet secure flow of highly sensitive personal information, that promise could also be empty.

Seeing a business opportunity, General Electric unveiled on Thursday its new unit, eHealth, a suite of solutions that aims to provide the necessary infrastructure. (GE reports that it is investing $90 million to launch eHealth.) It is a daunting task, but if it works, a digital record system that streamlines connectivity between clinicians and patients would eventually cost less, work faster, and reduce medical errors, some of which can be fatal.

The eHealth suite includes LifeSensor for patients. Screenshot by Elizabeth Armstrong Moore/CNET

GE is not the first to try to set up health information-sharing networks, which are currently called Health Information Exchanges. (They used to be called Community Health Information Networks and later Regional Health Information Organizations.) Without any incentive to make the transition, most hospitals and clinics didn't.

An initial $564 million seed grant, dispersed from the federal government to states, has been established to convince them to make the move. But to qualify for payment, hospitals and clinics will need to be able to use electronic health records that can travel securely across networks.

"eHealth provides the next level of connectivity," says Jim Younkin, IT program director for Geisinger Health System, which has utilized GE technologies through the Keystone Health Information Exchange, a sort of pilot project that already serves 31 counties in Pennsylvania. "More than 345,000 patients have registered for our exchange, and those patients have given their health care providers at eight hospitals and other regional health facilities timely access to relevant information through a secure connection. This, in turn, helps ensure these patients receive optimal care."

At this point, eHealth is focusing on patient health records, an information exchange infrastructure to share those records, documentation formatted specifically for clinicians, and the matching of patient documentation from a range of sources and organizations. Gone will be the days of such annoyances as squinting at bad handwriting, paying to have health records mailed from one office to another, and keeping track of just how many X-rays you've had in the past year.

Eventually, Health Information Exchanges could include automated notifications to primary physicians as patients are admitted to or released from hospitals, as well as the ongoing aggregation of a patient's lab results to better inform that patient's caregivers, Younkin says.

There will be, of course, at least one casualty of the widespread adoption of electronic health records: the demise of paper supply companies near you. At least everybody's favorite lives on--in its delightfully ironic digital format.