Warehouse fire highlights importance of EHR

A warehouse fire in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY provided yet another compelling argument for the need for protected health information to be accessible through an Electronic Health Record (EHR) system. The federal government, through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), among other entities, have released various statements highlighting the importance of developing EHRs. The fire, which burned a Williamsburg warehouse on January 31, 2015, resulted in innumerable pieces of personal health information (PHI) littering the streets of New York. The fire, which began on a Saturday, still burned on Monday.

According to EHR Intelligence, “recovery specialists [continue to] comb the streets and the East River for fragments of papers with personal health information, social security numbers, and bank account details exposed to the public.” Moreover, EHR Intelligence reports that North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, NYU Langone Medical Center, and Mount Sinai Health System stored records and patient information at the warehouse. Luckily, all the organizations, according to the New York Times, had copies of the patient records within its respective EHR systems.

Fortunately with responsive recovery teams and on the ground personnel the warehouse fire did not result in a massive breach potentially affecting thousands of patients, but it did illustrate the importance of having effective EHR systems and also the need to store patient data in more than one place. Imagine if any of the health care providers storing data at the warehouse did not have an EHR system. Could you imagine mitigating that situation? What would you tell patients? How would HHS deal with the breach?

The Office of the National Coordinator, within HHS, has numerous resources available to providers to help implement an effect EHR system. Moreover, the ONC provides additional information about the importance of EHR systems to improving patient care. Other than helping to reduce potential breaches, EHR systems are so popular because they help further the goal of interoperability. Interoperability is on the national health care agenda and has support from both Congress and the White House. President Obama’s proposed fiscal year 2016 budget allocates $78 million to ONC, which is a $17 million dollar increase since ONC’s inception, to help further the interoperability mission. Having an effective EHR system helps to promote the interoperability message in that, after the initial interoperable framework is laid by the federal government, it will be crucial for providers to be well equipped with systems that can easily interact with one another. EHR systems allow a patient with various providers to receive more coordinated care. Moreover, EHR systems can make it much less burdensome for individual patients to access their personal health records.

While the weekend warehouse fire is a tell tale example of the necessity for electronic record keeping, the federal government is also invested in the electronic systems to help further an even more important goal: increasing the quality and effectiveness of health care services.

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