Electronic Health Data Helping Katrina Victims

By M.L. Baker  |  Posted 09-15-2005

How do you take your daily medicine if you can't remember what prescriptions you have? That's the situation facing many Katrina evacuees with chronic conditions, who now have no record of what drugs they were taking before they fled their homes.

Close to a million people displaced by Hurricane Katrina now lack medical records.

The federal government is working to create a common database of prescription drug records from large retail pharmacies, pharmacy benefit managers and government sponsored health plans.

New studies indicate that instituting electronic health records at the physician's office may save money. Click here to read more.

According to the Washington Post, prescription drug records for more than 800,000 people are now available to doctors working to treat evacuees. But these cannot be modified to reflect current care, nor do they contain vital information about patients' conditions.

Katrina powerfully demonstrates the nation's need for electronic health records, Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt told The Associated Press on Monday.

There's already a working example. All of the 38,000 veterans who received care at the New Orleans VA Medical Center had their clinical information stored on a computerized system. Those records are now available to any VA physician at any VA hospital nationwide.

Before the levees broke, the New Orleans VA Center backed up all its patient data and had the tapes sent to the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, which was able to move data from the tapes onto its clinical system.

"It took the VA about 100 hours to transfer electronic health records for its all patients in the South, while it will take thousands of hours for the private sector to reconstitute paper medical records," said Francois de Brantes, health care initiatives program leader for General Electric's Corporate Health Care and Medical Services. About 240 New Orleans VA patients were transported to one of at least six VA hospitals.

Meanwhile, some Katrina evacuees are working with medical students and other volunteers to build free online versions of their medical records through Medem's ihealth.net. Jason Best, vice president of marketing at Medem, said his company was fielding a steady stream of calls from disaster relief agencies to reconstruct records that had been lost.

So far, though, he has not seen a move by unaffected patients and clinics to move toward electronic health records.

The storm will have only a modest effect on adoption rates, said Peter Waegemann, head of the non-profit Medical Records Institute. "The people who are pushing for EMR because of Katrina are talking about benefits to patients, not the doctors who are supposed to spend the money on these systems."