Medical Care

Health Records Of Evacuees Go Online

By Jonathan Krim
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The federal government is making medical information on Hurricane Katrina evacuees available online to doctors, the first time private records from various pharmacies and other health care providers have been compiled into centralized databases.

The data contain records from 150 Zip codes in areas hit by Katrina. Starting yesterday, doctors in eight shelters for evacuees could go to the Internet to search prescription drug records on more than 800,000 people from the storm-racked region.

Officials hope to soon add computerized records from Medicaid in Mississippi and Louisiana, Department of Veterans Affairs health facilities, laboratories and benefits managers.

The records are one step in reconstructing medical files on more than 1 million people disconnected from their regular doctors and drug stores. Officials fear that many medical records in the region, especially those that were not computerized, were lost to the storm and its aftermath.

Although the immediate focus is on urgent care for hurricane victims, participants in the effort say the disaster demonstrates a broader need to computerize individual health records nationwide and make them available throughout the medical system. Such a step could, for example, give emergency room doctors a way to quickly view medical histories for late-night accident victims.

Electronic health records are controversial among many privacy advocates, who fear the data could be exploited by hackers, companies or the government.

Ray Fowler, head of medical relief operations in Dallas, said "it was extremely scary" for doctors to have no records to rely on as thousands of evacuees poured off buses with serious injuries or infections.

Some patients had been on various medications before the hurricane, for conditions such as high blood pressure, but did not know what prescriptions they took, Fowler said.

Currently, roughly 8,000 people are in critical care shelters, while other seriously ill patients are being treated in hospitals outside the Gulf Coast region. But many of the 250,000 evacuees in various shelters also need medical attention.

"We think this could help save some lives," said Dr. David J. Brailer, coordinator of health information technology for the Department of Health and Human Services, who is spearheading the effort.

The system took about 10 days to organize, with daily conference calls involving as many as 60 state and federal officials; emergency medical providers; insurance, pharmacy and medical-software company representatives; and government lawyers.

Participating pharmacies so far include CVS, Rite Aid, Albertsons, Walgreens and Wal-Mart. Expected to be added soon are Winn-Dixie, Kmart and Target.

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