According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), each year in the United States, adverse drug interactions cause more than a million visits to hospital emergency rooms. The CDC also found that 40 percent of negative interactions were preventable. One way to minimize these events is to give pharmacists electronic access to summaries of people’s medical histories so they can better predict how a new medication will affect each person’s health. Walgreens is taking a bold step in this direction by partnering with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to give pharmacists at its locations access to military veterans’ full medication and immunization records if patients choose to opt into the program.
I firmly believe it will improve the health and wellbeing of veterans across the country. It will not only give us more options for filling our prescriptions, but it will also help local pharmacies spot potential interactions.
The partnership with Walgreens represents a shift toward providing veterans with better access to care. The program can also serve as a model for how other healthcare companies can securely transmit to providers data that could help improve patient wellness through comprehensive care.
Taking Better Care of Veterans
Military veterans are typically treated at VA hospitals throughout the country, where we receive care without a copay. Any VA physician can pull up my entire electronic medical record. VA hospitals are easy to find in my city of Atlanta; in rural areas, however, facilities can be less easily accessible. In fact, a 2015 RAND study found that only 25 percent of veterans live within a 60-minute transit time of a VA medical facility.
If veterans need prescriptions when VA pharmacies are closed, we have the option of going to commercial pharmacies. Sometimes we receive our medications for free, and sometimes we don’t — it all depends on whether the VA has an agreement with a particular pharmacy location. Non-VA pharmacies typically don’t have our medical histories, so we either have to remember the other medications we take or carry a list.
The VA’s partnership with Walgreens has the potential to give veterans far more convenient access to the care they need, and it could make the process of filling prescriptions much more organized and safe. Patients can take comfort in the fact that pharmacists will know them as people, not just as numbers.
The Life-Saving Potential of Electronic Records
Nearly ten years ago, the United States invested $27 billion to incent healthcare providers to adopt electronic health records (EHR). An EHR is a digital version of a patient’s paper chart, designed to share comprehensive snapshots of a patient’s medical history with other physicians and medical facilities. Unlike electronic medical records (EMRs), which record patients’ clinical data, EHRs go beyond that information to focus on the broader, total health of each patient. The VA has been using EHRs for years, and this last June it established the Office of Electronic Health Record Modernization, which is tasked with overhauling and modernizing its patient data system.
Most patients currently enjoy the benefits of EHRs only if they stay within large, comprehensive healthcare systems like the VA or Kaiser Permanente. For most Americans, however, every time we move, change doctors or seek out a new specialist, it’s up to us to relay our entire medical histories during the first visit.
When the onus is on the patient to provide an oral history of his or her health issues to each physician, these doctors may struggle with incomplete or inaccurate data, which can have damaging effects on a person’s treatment and health. According to the most recent analysis by CHIRO Strategies, a division of The Risk Management Foundation of the Harvard Medical Institutions Incorporated, 30 percent of medical malpractices cases filed from 2009 to 2013 was due to failures in communication. Among these, 57 percent resulted from a miscommunication between two or more health care providers, and 55 percent reflected miscommunication between providers and patients.
Challenges and Opportunities for the Healthcare IT Community
One huge challenge that remains is interoperability: In a 2015 report, the Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology found that, although the vast majority of hospitals have adopted EHRs, only 38 percent of medical facilities have the ability to share their records with other facilities.
Additionally, many EHR systems have complicated user interfaces that frustrate doctors who are already struggling to stay on schedule when treating patients. In a study published by the Annals of Internal Medicine, physicians reported that, during an office day, they spent just 27 percent of their time working face-to-face with their patients and about 50 percent of their day on tasks related to EHRs.
Despite these hurdles, EHRs have promising benefits for patients: A 2018 Stanford Medicine survey conducted by The Harris Poll found that more than 6 in 10 primary care doctors say electronic health records have led to improved care.
The growing accumulation of patient data that will be captured and shared among physicians present companies working in the healthcare industry with an interesting challenge: the need to improve user interfaces and make it easier for all of these systems to communicate with each other. As advancements in IT make creating and sharing these digital documents more seamless and secure, EHRs will lead to significant improvements in patient care.
The secure flow of pertinent health information not only to pharmacists but also among a patient’s providers can be life changing — even life-saving. Partnerships like that between Walgreens and the VA can serve as a model for the broader healthcare system: better information, more integration, and more responsive patient care. Authorized and secure sharing of patient EHRs can immediately give healthcare providers an edge in treating and preventing illnesses.
Charlie Whitfield is the founder and CEO of Whitty IT Solutions with more than 30 years of experience in the fields of Healthcare IT and Healthcare Advisory Services.