A simple sounding phrase--meaningful use--is the key that could open a vault of federal bonus bucks for doctors and hospitals.
Late Wednesday, Health and Human Services officials unveiled more than 500 pages of proposed rules on what doctors and hospitals have to do to collect billions of dollars in stimulus money for switching from paper medical files to computerized health records. Basically, they have to show they're using electronic systems to meaningfully improve care.
Less than 20 percent of doctors use electronic medical records now. They could get more than $40,000 by hopping on board. Most hospitals have some computerized systems, but they need to go a lot further in reporting on quality and sharing important data, advocates say.
So what do they have to do to collect the dough?
For starters, doctors have to use a computer for at least 80 percent of their instructions for patient care, something called computerized physician order entry in the trade.
Everybody knows drug mix-ups are a big safety problem, and one that computers can help solve, so the feds want doctors to use electronic systems to handle at least three-quarters of their prescriptions.
What's in it for you? Well, you shouldn't have to keep filling out so many forms every time you go for care because qualifying doctors and hospitals will have to keep the important stuff in a database.
And, if you want to see your medical record, the feds say docs and hospitals will have to give you an electronic copy in 48 hours or less.
There are worries that a gold-rush effect could lead to hard selling of flawed computer systems. NPR's Scott Simon talked about the dangers recently with investigative reporter Fred Schulte, of the Huffington Post, who explained:
A lot of doctors feel they're kind of at the mercy of these vendors and their salespeople that are coming out and telling them, oh, this system is great and whatever, and then they go out and buy it, and then they have all kinds of bugs and problems with it. And the taxpayers, obviously, have a side in this because if they collect the stimulus money, it's our money.
The Wall Street Journal's Health Blog has some reaction to the proposed rules and more analysis on what they mean.