CES : US officials stress information sharing

The U.S. government has years of work to do in order to integrate data systems across agencies and bureaus, but some progress is being made, according to speakers at the Government 2006 conference program at the vast International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks threw light on the need for the U.S. government to promote information sharing in the public sector, hurricanes that hit southern states last year showed that data integration among government agencies is still inefficient, said Senator George Allen, a Republican from Virginia. “You saw school buses in 5 feet of water …. when people needed to be evacuated,” he said.

Though homeland security and natural disasters have captured much of the headlines, there still is a pressing need for data-system integration in the health sector, especially as more baby boomers enter their retirement years, said Claude Allen, domestic policy advisor to President George Bush.

Citing various studies by the Institute of Medicine and the Kaiser Permanente insurance group, Claude Allen said that 44,000 to 98,000 deaths every year are caused by problems relating to lack of health information on patients, and that 30 percent of health-care providers say that missing information is a “major problem” in coordinating health care.

The federal government is taking several steps to promote information sharing in the health field, and chief among them is President Bush’s goal, set last year, to allow every U.S. citizen electronic access to health records within 10 years, he said.

There are two main hurdles to meeting that goal, Claude Allen noted. One is the lack of interoperability among federal, state and private data systems. The other is that while more than 50 percent of large medical practices use electronic systems, fewer than 15 percent of smaller practices do, he said.

“Interoperability and portability of information are essential to achieve the goals the president has envisioned,” he said.

A major step will occur this year, probably around midyear, when the American Health Information Community, a panel under the aegis of the Department of Health and Human Services, will issue a progress report on the president’s 10-year plan for electronic public access to health records, he said. “That will push through initiatives to speed the process,” he said.

Though not tied to the progress-report timetable, the Department of Health and Human Services is also in the middle of discussions about how to structure vendor contracts to achieve system interoperability, he said. The main debate centers around whether to issue one large, main contract, or to split up the data-systems work in to smaller contracts, he said.

At the state level, systems interoperability has already shown progress, Claude Allen said. For example, while he worked in the Virginia state government, agencies were able to cut down audit reports from five months to 45 days by streamlining data-sharing.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the establishment of the katrinahealth.org Web site showed how government and the private sector is starting to work together quickly to mitigate the health consequences of natural disasters, he said.

With federal, state, and local government help, KatrinaHealth.org is being operated by a national foundation, several private businesses, and national organizations of physicians. The effort made it possible to share information for 25 million prescription records on 1.1 million Gulf Coast evacuees, he said.

The CES government conference runs through Thursday.

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