WASHINGTON U.S. health officials released standards for electronic medical records on Wednesday, seeking to spur the technology in hopes of cutting health costs and reducing medical errors.
Congress required the standards, partly as a condition of about $19 billion in February's economic stimulus bill that is aimed at encouraging doctors and hospitals to convert paper records into digital files.
One set of proposals, issued by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), defines "meaningful use" of electronic records, in order for health care providers to be eligible for incentive payments.
Proposed requirements include that at least 80 percent of all patients who request an electronic copy of their health records receive it within 48 hours.
Another set of standards, issued as an interim final rule by the Health and Human Services Department, aims to enhance the interoperability, functionality, utility, and security of health information technology.
Electronic health records have been available for years, but many doctors' offices remain mired in paper.
"Widespread adoption of electronic health records holds great promise for improving health care quality, efficiency, and patient safety," David Blumenthal, the health department's national coordinator for Health Information Technology, said in a statement.
Part of the problem is that despite dozens of available software choices, there has been no clear standard so that information is easily shared between different providers or hospitals.
With no clear choice, many have been reluctant to spend money on systems that could quickly become obsolete.
The standards, which are subject to a public comment period, could affect companies such as Allscripts-Misys Healthcare Solutions Inc, Cerner Corp and McKesson Corp.
Larger technology companies such as General Electric's GE Healthcare unit, Siemens, Microsoft Corp and Google Inc are also involved in the health information technology business.
A final rule on standards for electronic records technology will be issued sometime in 2010. The proposed CMS rules on the incentives program will be subject to 60 days of public comment
(Reporting by Karey Wutkowski and Susan Heavey; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)