IBM developing test system to share health data

IBM is developing a test system to enable hospitals, health care agencies and consumers to share data electronically.

The goal of the standards-based system, called the Interoperable Health Information Infrastructure, is to improve the effectiveness of health care, said James Kaufman, research manager at IBM Alamaden Research Center in San Jose. The researchers will use both simulated health data and real data that has been anonymized, he said.

"We're spending about US$1.7 trillion on health care in the United States ... yet people die in this country due to preventable medical errors at a rate that's equivalent to the crashing of one fully loaded jumbo jet per day -- about 150,000 deaths per year," Kaufman said. "So obviously there is a significant hope that through the proper use of information technology we can lower the medical error rate and reduce or contain the costs."

The pilot, expected to be up and running by the end of 2006, will connect the Alamaden Research Center with IBM's development lab in Rochester, Minn., and its research lab in Haifa, Israel. As planned, it would replicate the type of national and international linking needed for a comprehensive, secure electronic health care record system, Kaufman said.

IBM is already working with several regional health information organizations around the U.S. to allow electronic medical records to be shared within a region or state, the company said in a statement.

The new program is focused on defining and developing technology that relies on open standards. "The system is an attempt to create a model of the future of the health information infrastructure that we're going to see a decade from now, but to create that in a laboratory today," Kaufman said.

"The goal is to demonstrate the way interoperability is likely to evolve, with a focus particularly in the United States," he said. "We need to deal with the complexity of today taking advantage of the standards that are emerging for tomorrow."

Kaufman said privacy and security issues will also be important pieces of the test system.

"For the use of [an] individual's data, we absolutely need to use technology to protect both the privacy and the security. But as citizens and patients, we also need to decide what rules and regulations should be applied to the use of our data," he said.

Beyond lowering costs and improving the quality of health care, electronically storing medical information will allow public health officials to more easily analyze that data to identify emerging health trends, he said.

During a health care event sponsored by IBM in San Jose on Monday, advocates of increased IT spending on health care agreed that the U.S. needs a national health care network. They also argued that the network needs to do more than just ease access to patient records in an effort to convince doctors and hospitals to embrace IT.

Improving treatment and reducing errors are ultimately more important uses of technology, the advocates at the event said.

IDG News Service contributed to this story.

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