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U.S. PUSHING WNY HEALTH SECTOR TO COMPUTERIZE PATIENT RECORDS

Fewer fatal mistakes would be one benefit of computer networks that allow different doctors and hospitals to share patients' information, an official in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said Wednesday in Amherst.

"Health-care costs continue to rise . . . and an epidemic of medical errors continues unabated," said Lori Evans, senior advisor to the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. She referred to studies estimating that medical errors cause thousands of deaths annually in the U.S.

Her remarks came during a meeting organized by Upstate New York Professional Healthcare Information and Education Demonstration project, or UNYPHIED, and the Workgroup for Electronic Data Interchange in Reston, Va.

The event at the Marriott on Millersport Highway drew about 130 people from area medical providers, insurers and technology vendors. UNYPHIED is a forum for collaboration between Buffalo-region health industry organizations.

The meeting centered on how to implement health information technology -- such things as electronic prescription systems and databanks that track patients' illnesses and treatment.

The federal goal outlined by President Bush's health technology strategy is a national network of patient information, built from regional networks, that can spot epidemics and monitor bioterrorism as well as improve care.

Evans acknowledged the goal faces hurdles like costs, privacy concerns and distrust between competing medical providers.

HHS last year funded $139 million for health information initiatives, including the launch of regional health information networks in five states.

In Western New York, greater sharing of medical information could pay large dividends, Erie County Health Commissioner Anthony Billittier said.

"We need to merge our data to get at the big picture," he said. Billittier related the escalating cost of Medicaid in New York to a lack of data. "We have trouble measuring population data -- you can't manage what you can't measure," he said. Care providers isolate their data in "silos" which, if analyzed together, could point the way to more efficient treatment, he said.

In the Buffalo region, health organizations are building limited information sharing systems, officials said, such as the "WNY HealtheNet" Web-based platform for sharing referral and eligibility information between hospitals and insurers.

Takayuki Nobumoto, co-chair of UNYPHIED and health privacy officer at the University at Buffalo, said he expects the region to continue to build ad hoc data sharing networks, rather than create a new stand-alone organization to hold a databank of patient information.

Without changes in medical practices and technology, accidents and near-accidents will continue to go without scrutiny for patterns that could save lives, said Dr. William R. Braithwaite, vice president of the eHealth Initiative, a non-profit group in Washington, D.C.

In a 1999 study, the Institute of Medicine estimated that errors such as faulty prescriptions and surgical accidents cause 44,000 to 90,000 deaths a year in the U.S., although critics have said the number is overblown.

"We're killing people at a rate that would astonish people if they thought about it," Braithwaite said. "In hospitals alone, there's a 747 falling out of the sky every day."

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com