The federal meaningful use incentive program is predicated on “structured data,” namely discrete, searchable data that is easily mined and exchanged. Many industry providers, however, have long depended on document management systems, which scan paper forms and assemble them as electronically accessible—but not easily searchable—files. Scanning technology can reduce storage costs associated with maintaining bulging files, and well-indexed files can serve as a stepping stone to more fully blown EHR systems, experts say. But many industry observers say the meaningful use program will relegate document imaging systems to a secondary role.

Many proponents of structured data see it as laying the foundation for a better health care system, one in which clinical data is easily transported and mined. “Document management systems will play a much smaller role in the future,” says Janie Tremlett, senior vice president, strategic and clinical services, for Concordant, an I.T. consulting shop that works with ambulatory practices. “We recommend that practices bite the bullet and develop an incremental strategy to enter patient data into the EHR and rely less on document management. They will see the benefits of doing that.”

Other industry stakeholders describe document management technology as a short-term stopgap. Such systems constitute “thinking for today,” says Justin Barnes, vice president of marketing for Greenway Medical Technologies, an ambulatory EHR vendor. “The future is in interoperability. You won’t have a health care system built on document management systems, but we will have one built on interoperability.”

For more on document management, read the May issue of Health Data Management.

--Gary Baldwin


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