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At the Heart of It All

February 1, 2007
by root
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Although the ultimate goal doesn't exist, one comprehensive trend is a concept with optimism.

Maybe there shouldn't have been nine trends this year. One might have sufficed. Had we found it necessary to pick just one, it would have been electronic health records (EHRs), of course. Sure, we know it's just a buzz word and that the EHR doesn't even exist -- not yet, anyway.

On the other hand, electronic medical records (EMRs) do exist. And they're a high interest, big ticket item. In fact, EMR implementations are slated to occupy many staffers' hours and put significant dents in many organizations' budgets.

As the lowest common denominator in building a nationwide data-sharing network, the EHR will be the mother of all personal health information, with a web of connectivity across multiple care sites. It would be the originator and the recipient of all patient-related data, diagnostics, treatment plans, and medication orders, even the ideal trigger for billing services rendered and equipment utilized.

Including EMRs among the nine tech trends this year was a natural, but we took the high ground on definition. The terms EMR and the EHR may be used interchangeably, but they remain separated by ownership, with the EMR a legal record of medical care delivered within an enterprise and the EHR, a cross-organizational record with expanded ownership and access rights for the individual.

The EHR may not exist in its final form, but given widespread adoption of the umbrella term, many providers and payers simply consider it as either synonymous with EMR or an ultimate goal. And a worthy goal it is. In a survey, "Critical Needs of the Modern Healthcare System: Technology Trends and Investments for 2007 and 2008," conducted by Healthcare Informatics last summer, a significant majority of representatives from acute care, ancillary care and managed care providers identified EHRs as a top priority with dedicated budgets over the next two years.

And although rose-colored glasses may still be necessary to envision a national network of interoperable systems, work continues on the project. Other than a minor change in nomenclature, taking a mental step back a few years when such a national network of connectivity was little more than an idealistic dream, is a reminder of how much progress has been made. Could anyone then imagine that the quest would generate symposiums, forums, workshops and blogs devoted to such a data-sharing goal? Or that so many states and regional data-sharing projects would be under way?

And, of course, each new project is a catalyst for new products. Undoubtedly, there are many scheduled for announcements and demos later this month at the Health Information Management Systems Society (HIMSS) annual conference and exhibition in New Orleans.

And new and innovative products aren't restricted to offerings from known vendors. After you've completed your obligatory meetings with must-see vendors, consider a quiet amble around the perimeter and less-accessible sections of the exhibit hall. It is not unusual to find a product gem amidst this group of companies, many making their HIMSS debut. Within three years, some of these will be acquired by bigger companies; some will get funding and make a name for themselves; and some will simply disappear.

In the meantime, some creative developer just may be working on the solution to one of your headaches. And if not, the level of enthusiasm is refreshing.