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Information Technology Is Key to Health Policy

When I was a child, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a hero to our family. (I didn’t become a Republican until I was in law school, you see.) At the time of his death, he was the leader of the free world and the most prosperous country on earth. He had serious chronic diseases, including high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. The best that the heart specialist who saw him could recommend — the state of the art of the day — was bed rest and one medicine, digitalis, that was derived from plants and first used more than 100 years before.

It is a measure of progress that today the average American with the same conditions as President Roosevelt can receive better health care than the most powerful or wealthy person in the country could 60 years ago. This improvement reflects investments we have made over a long period of time. Now we better understand what those with chronic disease such as high blood pressure can do for themselves.

If Roosevelt had been treated with medicine readily available today, he would have been prescribed drugs to lower both his blood pressure and his cholesterol, reducing the chance that his blood would clot and lead to the stroke that eventually killed him.

America has been at the forefront of medical advancements since Roosevelt’s day, and we must continue to lead the way for future generations. We need to keep the long term in mind when we think about our medical system. Health care reform can mean a lot of things, such as access to and quality of care. The system definitely needs to see reform, but we must recognize what is positive in American health care rather than dwell simply on what is negative.

The period since World War II has brought tremendous increases to our standard of living. One way we have increased our standard of living is by living longer. When Roosevelt died in 1945, the life expectancy in America was 65.9 years, whereas according to the most recent data, it is 77.8 years.

Just as the physician works under the oath “First, do no harm,” policymakers must avoid measures that would put future progress at risk.

The health of my grandchildren in their old age likely will owe more to the work of researchers like Dr. Mario Capecchi than to my colleagues and me in the Senate. Dr. Capecchi, affiliated with the University of Utah for more than 35 years, shared this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine. The techniques he has made possible reflect a deepening understanding of how our genetic makeup limits our health.

What has made our health care system great is what makes America great. We innovate. We come up with new ideas and we put them to work.

Some of those ideas are just over the horizon. We are in the beginning stages of unleashing the capacity of information technology in health care. The kinds of networks that make it possible to use an ATM card to withdraw funds in Washington, D.C., from a bank in Salt Lake City will have a powerful effect on how information flows across the health care system.

Enhanced medical IT can make health care providers more efficient, thereby allowing them to spend more time healing and less time on paperwork. IT also can reduce the likelihood of medical errors, which will help keep patients healthier, eliminate the need for corrective care and reduce the abhorrent costs of medical malpractice litigation.

The savings from better IT use are enormous. The federal government’s estimate is that the nation would save $140 billion each year from proper IT use. Despite the benefits of investment in health IT, utilization is low. To that end, I am pushing for Congress to pass the Wired for Health Care Quality Act, on which I am collaborating with three members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee: Chairman Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

The act will create public/private partnerships that will set standards of interoperability that the health IT industry badly needs so the products that are developed will communicate with one another. The bill sets up a grant program that will encourage innovation in how health IT is implemented in medical practice.

Quality of patient care declines when physicians do not have access to timely information about the patients they serve, and health care costs skyrocket when tests or procedures are duplicated because critical records are missing or inaccessible. Wasting scarce health care dollars on needless administrative costs drives up insurance premiums and creates care that is less affordable and less available.

IT systems are linked securely with strong privacy protections to a patient’s medical records and can improve care by warning a doctor or nurse if an order or prescription may harm a patient. These systems can issue reminders for screening tests so that needed preventive care is not overlooked. Computerized records also allow doctors to look at a patient’s entire medical record at once, improving care coordination in our fragmented health care system.

Improved IT is just one of the many ways that continued American innovation can solve the health care problems we face. Other health care tools, surely more powerful, are beyond the horizon. The path from hypotheses to real treatments will depend on the choices we make in health reform. Without a market that will buy innovations, innovators will not invest.

That’s a message I will constantly impress on my colleagues in the Senate when we consider health issues. I want my grandchildren to experience as much advancement in health care as my generation has.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.