HHS underwrites efforts to accelerate health IT in Gulf Coast

The Health and Human Services Department has formed agreements with two organizations that will plan for and promote the widespread use of electronic health records in the Gulf Coast region as it rebuilds after recent hurricanes.

The Southern Governors' Association will form the Gulf Coast Health Information Task Force, which will bring together local and national resources to help area health care providers turn to electronic medical records as they rebuild.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals will develop a prototype of health information sharing and electronic health record support that can be replicated throughout the region.

Hurricane Katrina destroyed a vast number of paper medical records maintained by physicians, hospitals and nursing homes in the Gulf Coast region. Providers and payers using electronic medical records were largely able to preserve their systems and patient information despite the devastation.

'The effect of these hurricanes has been to demonstrate the real need for health records that are both electronic and interoperable,' said HHS secretary Mike Leavitt in a statement.

As physicians, hospitals and other facilities return to operation, they will have to rebuild medical records for their patients.

'The goal of the task force is to make sure doctors, hospitals and other providers have electronic options to bring about interoperability in the region as a design requirement of health recovery, and then to look at the support needs of the Gulf Coast diaspora to see if there's more that we can do to support their needs as they continue to be a migrant population,' said David Brailer, HHS' national coordinator for health IT, at a conference yesterday sponsored by the E-Gov Institute in Washington.

Examples of electronic options may be to connect doctors with software companies that have offered to donate electronic health records or to develop group purchase vehicles for electronic health records, Brailer said.

Brailer's office is funding the two actions with $4 million from funds remaining from fiscal 2005.

The effort will not be connected with Katrinahealth.org, a public-private, voluntary undertaking that pieced together electronic records of drug lists of Katrina evacuees for use by physicians treating them in shelters. Katrinahealth.org is not expected to be a long-term undertaking.

The agreements complement recently announced contracts to certify electronic health records, develop interoperability standards, evaluate variations among privacy and security requirements across the country and create prototypes for a nationwide health information network.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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