AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Randy Cooper looks forward to the day he'll see his patients from home.
The surgeon at Augusta's University Hospital isn't planning to open a home office; he'll be looking up their charts and X-rays through a computer. That kind of electronic patient record might be the key to eliminating medical care errors that kill as many as 90,000 patients a year in the U.S., a scientific advisory group announced Thursday.
The Institute of Medicine caused a stir three years ago when it released a report on medical errors that showed tens of thousands of patients needlessly suffer preventable medical mistakes.
A massive follow-up report released Thursday recommends creating a national electronic health infrastructure, with standardized data and definitions that would be accessible to everyone within the next decade.
The group, part of the National Academies of Science, also recommended that the federal government offer incentives that will help health care providers who have not yet gone electronic purchase the right types of systems. A key will also be the thorough reporting of "near misses," or mistakes caught before they happen, that can serve as lessons for others.
When examining how mistakes happen, "a very, very large part of it is communication," said J. Peter Rissing, the medical director for Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics.
Most local hospitals already use some form of electronic patient record and are looking to combine all the relevant patient information and support into one system. At University Hospital, Cooper is among a pilot group that is working with the new records, which recently allowed him to examine charts and X-rays of two patients on different floors before he went to see them.
"Shortly, I'll be able to do that from the office," Cooper said. "And within the year, do it from home" through a Web-based portal.
The challenge might be establishing the national system and creating access for all so patients and their information can be tracked as they move through the system.
"A lot of times the hospitals do talk" as patients pass among them, said Heidi Nelson, the director of performance improvement and patient safety for University Hospital. "There is collaboration among hospitals."
Many hospitals, either internally or through groups such as the Georgia Hospital Association, have active programs to face up to potential mistakes and provide a "blame-free culture" that seeks honest reporting, Rissing said.
"Most of these are system problems, not person problems," he said.
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