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As the Obama administration continues to encourage medical providers to adopt new health information technology, the state of Georgia is launching a program that would jump-start Medicaid physicians' use of paperless health records.

In January, the Georgia Office of Health Information Technology and Transparency will begin to develop a secure electronic health information exchange for the 10,000 physicians in the state who treat Medicaid patients, according to a release from the office.

Medicaid providers will have access to a statewide network of computerized health records that officials say will result in better care for patients and streamlined management of patient medical histories.

The exchange will be created and implemented over the next few years, said Dr. Carladenise Edwards, state health information technology coordinator, in the release.

Despite repeated phone calls Monday and Tuesday, officials at the Georgia Department of Community Health, the parent of the Office of Health Information, did not provide any details on how the initiative will be funded or what specifically is involved in its first phase.

The plan comes at a time when federal and state governments nationwide are pushing providers to get onboard with advances in health information technology, such as e-prescribing and electronic medical records systems.

Still, many in the medical community have deep misgivings about how easy and affordable it will be to get such a paperless system up and running. Others have fears about the security of electronic medical records.

"We don't adapt real easily to change, and that is a major, major change," said Faye Abney, office manager at Chattanooga Women's Specialists, an OB-GYN practice in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.

The practice, with half of its patients on Medicaid, thus far has not made any plans to go paperless, she said.

"The main scare in it is getting it going and getting the kinks out of it," Ms. Abney said.

FEDERAL PUSH

The federal economic stimulus package earmarked $19 billion in incentives to encourage the adoption and "meaningful use" of electronic health technology. Doctors who don't implement paperless records would face penalties in the form of lower Medicare reimbursements if they don't adopt such a system by 2015.

Health officials hope that widespread implementation of electronic records will increase efficiency, prevent medical errors triggered by misread doctors' notes or adverse drug reactions, as well as reduce unnecessary repeated tests.

But some doctors have concerns about the start-up costs to implement a new records system, which can run between $20,000 and $100,000 for software and staff training. Some argue that, even after the kinks are worked out, the system won't be foolproof.

"Even (with) electronic medical records, the accuracy is going to be totally dependent upon who enters that information into the record," Ms. Abney said. "There's still going to be human error."

At White's Pediatrics in Dalton, Ga., Dr. Jeffeory White said the practice's efficiency has improved immensely since he switched to an electronic health records system in 1995. The $100,000 system, from a small independent software company, paid for itself in less than a year in savings in labor costs, paper costs and overall efficiency, he said.

"There are products that will save you money. Paper systems cost 10 times more than an electronic system would ever cost," Dr. White said.

Others resent the government's pressure to adopt electronic health records.

The benefits of a paperless system are "extremely overblown," said Christine Baughman, co-owner of Promise Pediatrics, a small practice in Ringgold, Ga.

"I can read any physicians' notes very easily. It's not a problem," she said. "I don't feel like the state or federal government has the right to mandate how we run our business" by penalizing those who don't go paperless.

ELECTRONIC HEALTH RECORDS

The U.S. lags behind many industrialized countries in the adoption of paperless records, according to a survey of 10,000 primary care physicians released in November by the Commonwealth Fund.

Forty-six percent of U.S. physicians were using electronic medical records in 2009, an improvement over 28 percent in 2006. But in the Netherlands, 99 percent of doctors have gone paperless, and 97 percent in New Zealand have done so, the survey found.

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