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Healthcare IT eyes medical record digitization hurdle

Part of President Obama's economic stimulus plan calls for the digitization of medical records, but healthcare IT people worry their industry may not be prepared to take on the project.

President Obama has vowed the U.S. will digitize all medical records by 2014, and an economic stimulus package passed by Congress last week allocates $20 billion toward the process. But some healthcare IT pros and value-added resellers (VARs) say the industry may not be ready to take on the project this year.

Some large hospital consortiums are more prepared than others. "EHR [Electronic Health Record] is Sutter Health's most important initiative," wrote Rodney Willms, senior storage engineer at Sacramento, Calif.-based Sutter Health, in an email to "I spend 30%-50% of [my] time working with the application team on the support of this project."

But healthcare IT experts say this may be the exception rather than the rule.

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"There aren't a lot of people specializing in healthcare IT to begin with," said Irwin Teodoro, director of systems integration at Laurus Technologies Inc., which is headquartered in Itasca, Ill. Laurus Technologies is a VAR with consulting and sales practices dedicated to healthcare IT.

There may be some high-end talent available on the job market thanks to the meltdown in the financial sector, but Teodoro said there tends to be little movement into or out of the healthcare IT sector.

He also pointed out that healthcare, in general, has been "more a follower than a leader" in IT. That was an issue when the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) first passed. Though HIPAA was originally passed in 1996, the section that has had the most impact on the healthcare industry, Title II, didn't actually come into effect until April 2005. And healthcare IT people say that's when most of the healthcare market – particularly the smaller and midsized enterprises – began embracing the storage technologies that other industries had been using for years.

The effects of that lag in networked storage adoption are still felt as the industry responds to new requirements, Teodoro said. "VMware has been around five or six years, but right now is when people in healthcare are starting to adopt it."

Some healthcare IT administrators are still dealing with policy questions raised by the requirement to digitize records. "How do you guarantee that the data-retention period will be protected and original information not changed?" said Michael Quinn, director of data management information services at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London, Conn. "[There are also] decisions to be made as to [whether] we try to go back in time and scan records, or [do we] just start cold turkey at the deployment date?"

Either way, he said, digitization will cause "huge additions to storage needs … and staffing needs." Lawrence & Memorial will try to cut costs by using temporary workers for scanning, but must first decide what data will be scanned. "We are purchasing another eight nodes [approximately 15 TB usable] of disk space for each of our [EMC Corp.] Centeras and will have to evaluate if this will get us through our current budget period," Quinn said.

Some health institutions are still waiting to get the budget to take on new IT projects. Miley Davis, technical systems administrator at OSF Healthcare System in Peoria, Ill., said her company has implemented a budget and hiring freeze.

"I haven't heard anything yet" from upper management about a digitization project, she said. "We're just going to kind of have to wait to see what comes."

OSF Healthcare System already archives emails and some other documents with Symantec Corp.'s Enterprise Vault, which is projected to double in capacity this year to 10 TB. How the company will keep up with that data growth, regardless of digital health records, is "a good question" right now, Davis said.

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