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Medicare Will Offer Doctors Free Software for Computerized Records System

Jul 23, 2005 | All medical professionals agree that a smooth transition from paper files to electronic records could do wonders for the operations of both private practice and hospitals.

Electronic files would reduce errors, facilitate tests, and make scheduling appointments and obtaining a patient’s history much easier. Currently, the problem is that electronic systems can cost many thousands of dollars to purchase, not including the time needed to ensure they are installed and operating properly.

In an effort to encourage the change over to electronic systems, Medicare, which claims that old paper filing systems present one of the biggest impediments to improved health care, has announced that it will give software to doctors free of charge to computerize their offices. They will also provide a list of companies which will administer technical support.

The program being released by Medicare next month called Vista Office is a simplified version of the successful electronic health recorded system called Vista. Vista, developed by the federal government has been used for two decades by 1,300 V.A. hospitals in both inpatient and outpatient facilities. This amounts to over 10 million records for more than five million veterans treated per year.

Vista’s improvements in these facilities included a scanning system, which allowed the barcodes on medicines to be crossed checked with a barcode on the patient’s wristband, reducing drug errors by 80%.

Another major attraction of Vista is that it is so affordable. Typically software systems can cost each doctor in a practice $20,000 to $25,000 dollars, whereas Vista would cost between 10,000 and 12,000 for the whole office. This could save an office with five doctors $100,000 dollars.

Despite these major benefits doctors point out that, using a system that someone else installs and maintains is different from mastering it yourself. Dr. David Kibbe, director of the center for health information technology at the American Academy of Family Physicians, which is working on the Vista project said “at the beginning, there was a lot of wishful thinking. They said, 'We'll just release it.' I said, 'Where's the fairy dust?' "

Several doctors have reported problems installing Vista. Dr. Nancy Anthracite, a family physician in Washington relied on many hours of technical support from a group of Vista supporters called Hardhats, who volunteered their time.

While Dr. Kevin Toppenberg was attracted to the V.A. version of Vista because it greatly lowered the expense of converting to an electronic system he remarks, “You just have to figure out how to get it to work." It took him six months.

Some doctors fear that, even with free software and the new Vista Office, the transfer to an electronic system will be expensive because of the time required to implement and operate the technology costs money, usually $250 dollars per hour.

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