U.S. health officials proposed new rules Wednesday in an effort to make it easier for doctors, especially those with small practices, to receive free software, computers and related services for electronic health records.
Under the proposals, such high-tech gifts would be exempt from federal laws that limit the goods doctors can receive from health-care providers without charge.
That would protect physicians and health care companies from prosecution if hospitals, pharmacy benefits managers or others pay to install electronic medical record systems in doctors' offices, officials said.
President Bush has called for all Americans to have electronic medical records by 2014, but a number of factors have prevented many practitioners from leaving paper records behind.
Costs, unfamiliarity in using such programs, and the ability for providers in one office to use files from another are the main obstacles, experts and officials have said.
About 15 to 20 percent of doctors' offices and about 20 to 25 percent of hospitals have an electric system in place, a RAND study earlier this year said.
Many doctors with smaller practices have cited the high costs of buying more computers and installing software as the main reason they still use paper records.
Officials said the new rules will help ease that burden as well as allow training.
"These proposed exceptions — safe harbors — would allow both ... financial subsidies as well as a donation of the know-how and skills," said David Brailer, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.
Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said the new rules aim to help doctors but not allow them to take advantage of the exceptions. "We have every intention of finding that balance," he said.
Adopting technology is key to reducing health care costs, monitoring side effects and eliminating mistakes, especially in prescribing drugs, officials said.
A widely cited Institute of Medicine report in 1999 said 44,000 to 98,000 U.S. patients died annually from medical errors. The RAND study found better efficiency could save at least $77 billion.
Some consumer groups have voiced concerns that electronic records may erode patient privacy.
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services officials also said final regulations outlining electronic prescription rules for companies participating in the new Medicare prescription drug plan would be issued later this week.
Several lawmakers have proposed legislation to provide incentives to encourage the adoption of health technology. Leavitt said legislation would still ultimately be needed despite the proposed new rules.
Leavitt added that a conference to help set standards so that practitioners could share data using various products was planned for Friday.
The proposals will be open for comment for 60 days before they are finalized.