NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 31, 2007

Health care providers have dreamed about electronic records which would reduce the risk of medical errors and spare hospitals the expense of missing records and unnecessary treatment.  Already, there is a clear software standard, an open-source system that's low-cost, easy to use and readily available.  It could be the key to the health care system we ought to have, says Thomas Goetz, deputy editor of Wired magazine and author of the blog Epidemix.

The program, WorldVistA, is based on the Veterans Affairs Department's electronic-records system, called VistA (short for Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture — and yes, they beat Bill Gates to the name).  VistA stands as perhaps the greatest success story for government-developed information technology since the Internet itself.

Using the VistA record system, the veterans department has managed to improve nearly every benchmark of quality in health care.

  • In a decade, the department increased its pneumonia vaccination rate among at-risk patients to 94 percent from only 29 percent.
  • That translates into 6,000 saved lives and $40 million saved each year from fewer pneumonia hospitalizations.
  • On a host of other benchmarks -- beta blocker use, cancer screening, cholesterol screening and so on -- the department outperforms the nation's best care.
  • Thanks to VistA, costs per patient at the Veterans Health Administration system are 32 percent lower, using inflation-adjusted dollars, than they were a decade ago.
  • Over the same period, the medical consumer price index has increased 50 percent for the country as a whole.

WorldVistA isn't perfect, but for the vast majority of health care providers, the program is what they've been waiting for: a low-cost, simple-to-use system that makes it easier to provide quality health care, says Goetz.

Source: Thomas Goetz, "Physician, Upgrade Thyself," New York Times, May 30, 2007.

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