The U.S. health-care system is the most costly in the world. Yet it's also remarkably antiquated. The medical records of as many as 90% of patients are hidden away in old-fashioned filing cabinets in doctors' offices. Prescriptions are scribbled on paper. Most Americans need to fill out separate medical histories for each specialist they visit. "We are trained, like Pavlov's dogs, to repeat the same information 17 times," says Scott Wallace, chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Health Information Technology, a not-for-profit alliance of health care providers, information technology vendors, and health and technology associations. The result: mistakes, duplicated tests, botched diagnoses, and billions of dollars in unnecessary costs and lost productivity.
Many providers, including Kaiser Permanente and Cleveland Clinic, have invested millions of dollars in information technology systems and creating electronic medical records for patients. Here's the rub: Much of that information can't be shared from one doctor or hospital to the next. As a result, blood-test results in the database of an Arizona doctor, for instance, are of little use when the patient is visiting a doctor halfway across the country. Linking systems "is the real challenge in this industry," says Dr. C. Martin Harris, chief information officer at the Cleveland Clinic.