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March 3, 2021, 9:45 a.m. EST

COVID has revealed how sick our health-care system really is

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By Elizabeth A. Regan

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In the news: U.S. COVID vaccine supply to be boosted by Merck helping make J&J vaccine

One failure  of the system is an inability to accurately identify and match patient records. Few standards exist for collecting patient information. With hundreds of vendors and thousands of hospitals, doctor’s offices, pharmacies and other facilities participating in the process, variation is huge. Is John Doe at 250 Park Ridge Drive the same as John E. Doe at 250 Parkridge?

In 2017, the American Hospital Association estimated 45% of large hospitals  reported difficulties in correctly identifying patients  across information technology systems. This means, on occasions at least, clinicians are making decisions that lead to increased chances of misdiagnosis, unsafe medical treatment and duplicate testing.

During a public health emergency such as COVID-19, accurate IDs of patients is one of the most  difficult operational issues that a hospital faces . Accurate COVID-19 test results  are hampered  when specimens, sent to public health labs, are accompanied by patient misidentification and inadequate demographic data. Results can be sent to the wrong patient, or at best, get backlogged.

These mistakes also are costly. More than one-third of all denied claims  result directly  from inaccurate patient identification or information that’s wrong or incomplete. This costs the average U.S. health-care facility  $1.2 million a year .

Congress needs to act

For nearly two decades, the Department of Health and Human Services has been restricted from spending federal dollars to adopt a unique health identifier for patients. To remedy the problem, the House of Representatives in July 2020 unanimously adopted an amendment allowing HHS to evaluate patient identification solutions that still protect patient privacy. But the Senate chose not to address the issue. Still, many health-care leaders are advocating for the new Congress to take action. Health-care proponents are hopeful the new Senate majority leader will be more receptive to addressing the issue.

A bright spot in all of this is that many health-care systems saw the advantages of telemedicine during the pandemic. It’s convenient for patients, it saves money, and it meets the needs of patients who have  difficulty traveling . Telemedicine could be just the beginning; with an ever-growing array of mobile health devices, physicians can monitor a patient at home, rather than in an institution.

More must be done, however. Throughout the pandemic, some patients, with a lack of broadband access or poor Wi-Fi,  had something less  than a rich and uninterrupted visit.

Health IT advocates have long envisioned a health care system that seamlessly uses connected care to improve patient outcomes while costing less. When the pandemic subsides, the waivers and policies temporarily adopted will require not a sudden termination, but a transition to such a system.

Over the past year, doctors, nurses and health-care systems have learned lessons out of necessity. Instead of abandoning our new knowledge, I believe we need to double down on a modern, stable and value-based health-delivery system with equity for all. And at its heart must be one certainty: that accurate and comprehensive patient records are always available at the point of care.

This commentary was originally published by The Conversation—COVID-19 revealed how sick the US health care delivery system really is

Elizabeth A. Regan is the department chair of Integrated Information Technology and professor of health informatics at the University of South Carolina.

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