U.S. standards set for electronic medical records

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Doctors and hospitals will have to digitize medical records and meet certain criteria to secure a slice of an estimated $27 billion in government incentives to modernize medical files, U.S. health officials said on Tuesday.

The requirements to qualify for federal funding are more flexible than preliminary standards that were widely criticized as too tough.

To receive funding, hospitals will have to meet 14 core “meaningful use” requirements while doctors will have to meet 15. Among the criteria are using electronic systems to prescribe medications and maintain patient medication lists as well as providing patients with a copy of their own digital records.

Providers will have to choose an additional five criteria from a list of 10 to get funding, which is intended to reimburse expensive transition costs.

The push to modernize medical files is aimed at cutting costs and reducing medical errors. With the digital technology, health providers can share information more easily, better monitor patient health and prevent unnecessary diagnostic tests or harmful prescription drug combinations.

“If you want to improve the quality of care, you need to be able to accurately measure what’s going on,” Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said. “You want to promote greater coordination among doctors. You need to quickly move health information to wherever it’s needed at the appropriate time.”

In 2009, Congress authorized funding to promote electronic health records as part of the economic stimulus package. Incentives will be paid out over five years, and by 2015 providers will face penalties if they don’t adopt the new technology.

“We know that today, because of various obstacles, only 20 percent of doctors and 10 percent of hospitals even use basic electronic records,” Sebelius said.

The standards could affect information technology companies such as Cerner Corp, McKesson Corp and Quality Systems Inc.

The clinical health information technology market is estimated at $27 billion, including $17 billion for hospital systems.

“We have seen a modest but steady rise in interest in electronic health records ever since the law was signed in 2009,” said Charlie Jarvis, a vice president at NextGen Healthcare, a subsidiary of Quality Systems. “I could see 10 percent, maybe 12 percent growth in electronic health record adoption over the next few years.”

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.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will compensate eligible hospitals and physicians who use the new technology by increasing federal payments through its health safety net programs.

The Health and Human Services Department also announced final certification rules for health information technology. Last week, the agency announced a third set of rules aimed at boosting the privacy of electronic health records.

A fact sheet on the final standards can be found at: here.

Reporting by Jon Lentz; Editing by John Wallace, Phil Berlowitz