President Bush mounted a wooden stool on a stage at a hospital auditorium Thursday and lauded the efficiency and safety of computerizing medical records instead of forcing health care workers to juggle paper and decipher doctors' scribbles.
"Within 10 years, we want most Americans to have electronic health care records -- that means your records," Bush told a supportive audience at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "You not only save money, you improve the quality of care through the spread of good information. It lets these docs do their jobs; it eases the minds of the patients."
The topic might seem incongruous on a day when the Democratic candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), gave a major address on national security, and with all the crises besetting the administration. But Bush's "conversation on health care information technology" was part of a coordinated effort between the White House and the Bush-Cheney campaign to appeal to suburban swing voters who are technologically savvy.
Bush's senior adviser, Karl Rove, targeted "wired workers" in the administration's first year as one of the groups among whom the president would try to improve his performance in 2004. The focus on medical technology, which Bush included in his January State of the Union address, is also part of an effort by Bush's aides to expand his plans for health care beyond Medicare and reach voters in their thirties and forties.
Last month, the White House put out a policy book titled "A New Generation of American Innovation" that called for promoting hydrogen fuel technology, "transforming health care through health information technology" and speeding up the roll-out of high-speed Internet service.
Three weeks later, Bush-Cheney '04 announced a coalition called "Innovators for Bush," which was launched with a video of testimonials from leading executives in technology, telecommunications and biotechnology. The coalition is part of a campaign program that eventually will set up state-by-state groups aimed at farmers, firefighters, Jewish voters and a few dozen other categories.
Both parties like to talk about technology because it makes voters think about the future, and Kerry's health-care agenda calls for "ensuring all Americans have secure, private electronic medical records by 2008." Kerry spokesman Phil Singer called Bush's Nashville appearance a "hollow, misleading" photo opportunity.
The talk-show-style event at Vanderbilt was paid for by taxpayers, but the political overtones were obvious. Bush spoke in front of a giant backdrop saying "Better Healthcare, Better Technology." Seated next to him was Jennifer Queen, mother of a 7-year-old who uses a tracheotomy tube and has benefited from Vanderbilt's electronic records program.
"She's here as a mom," Bush said to Queen. To heart patient Bob McNeilly, the president said, "Tell us how electronic records affected you."
"We're at Vanderbilt for a reason," Bush said. "It's because this hospital is, and system is, innovative and different. And it's on the leading edge of change."
The president was in Music City primarily to headline a $1.7 million reception and dinner for the Republican National Committee's Victory 2004 fund, and the technology event was added to produce favorable news coverage in Tennessee.
Bush won the traditionally Democratic state by 4 percentage points in 2000 and is favored in November. But two polls, including one released Monday by Zogby Interactive and the Wall Street Journal, have shown Bush in a statistical tie with Kerry in the state.
Bush began the day with a briefing in the pediatric critical care unit of Vanderbilt Children's Hospital, where a doctor showed how an electronic system had reduced the dosage errors that can plague the paper method.
Democrats sought to embarrass the White House by pointing out that Bush's budget this year proposed freezing some grants that benefit such hospitals, and that the fundraiser was at an insurance industry executive's estate. "Bush Cuts Children's Health While Rewarding HMOs," blared the Daily Mislead, an e-mail newsletter by MoveOn.org that is billed as "a daily chronicle of Bush administration distortion."