By: Brady Bizarro, Esq.
Let’s face it: fax machines are horrible and outdated. From busy signals to unreadable printouts to incorrect destinations, it is no wonder most industries abandoned them last century. In our industry, which deals extensively with providers, it’s the primary way to communicate. Understanding why can give you a glimpse into the broader problems with healthcare policy in this country today; a misalignment of economic incentives.
Almost all providers have digitized their own patient records. This was done largely thanks to the Obama administration. In 2009, as part of the stimulus bill, the government passed the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (the “HITECH Act”), which included nearly $30 billion to encourage providers to switch to electronic records. Statistics reveal that the number of hospital systems using electronic records went from nine percent in 2008 to eighty-three percent in 2015. So far so good. So, what went wrong? Why is the fax machine still the primary way doctor’s offices communicate?
The issue is not digitizing records: the issue is sharing them. When doctors want to retrieve patient records from another doctor’s office, they turn to the fax machine. They print out records, fax them over to the other provider, and that office scans them into their digital system. Needless to say, this is inefficient, and a misreading of economic incentives is to blame.
The government, at the time, assumed that providers would volunteer to share patient data amongst themselves. This data, however, is considered proprietary and an important business asset to most providers. If other hospital systems could easily access and share your medical record, you could more easily switch providers. Switching providers may be a good thing for a patient who is shopping for better value care, but most providers perceive this ability as a threat to steerage. After all, hospital systems compete with one another for steerage.
As in the case of other healthcare policy problems, chief among them out-of-control spending, doctors, nurses, patients, lawmakers, everyone is frustrated; yet, a solution has thus far been out of reach. The proposed solutions divide policymakers among ideological lines as is often the case with healthcare spending: some feel that more government regulation is needed; others feel that fewer regulations are needed. The Trump administration has so far proposed deregulation in this area and giving patients more control over their own medical records. This is one of the four priorities recently accounted by the Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”). Time will tell if this approach will finally lead to the demise of one of the most despised pieces of technology in medicine.