People could carry their medical records around their necks or on key chains through technology being encouraged in a bill passed Friday by the Senate.
"When they go to the doctor's office they won't have to take that little clipboard and figure out whatever it is that they can remember about their health," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.
The Wired for Health Care Quality Act encourages the Health and Human Services Department to form a public-private partnership to identify ways to streamline the health care system's information technology. Hospitals and other health care providers could apply for grants to help them implement new technologies.
A system that makes patient records available instantly also would reduce medical errors, said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., one of the bill's nearly 40 sponsors.
It would "bring a health care system really into the modern century through information and technology," Kennedy told reporters. "This can have a profound impact in terms of saving lives."
The bill passed the Senate on a voice vote. The House is considering two similar measures.
Dr. Deborah Peel, president of the watchdog group Patient Privacy Rights, complained that the bill doesn't include enough protections to keep personal information out of the hands of people who shouldn't have it — such as employers, who could use it to discriminate against employees and potential hires.
"There's no recognition of every American's fundamental right to make a decision as to who can see medical information about them," she said. "The point is that patients want to be asked."
Peel said patients should be allowed to "segment" their information — or request that some of it not be made electronic or that certain electronic files be shared only with a few people.
Kennedy and Enzi said their bill provides plenty of built-in protections.
About 10,000 Americans have already made their health records electronic and accessible anywhere via the Internet with a free online service. And 60 people have had computer chips implanted into their arms to provide access to their electronic medial records, according VeriChip Corp., a Delray Beach, Fla., company that received Food and Drug Administration approval last year to market the chips.
Doctors have been slow to join the digital revolution. A Rand Corp. study published this year found that as of 2002 only between 10 percent and 16.4 percent of the nation's physicians had adopted electronic medical record technology.
Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, have their own legislation that would provide $4 billion in grants and tax incentives for health care providers to invest in digitalizing health information.
"We recognized all along that once the system is recognized for its value the ... funding will have to be put in place," Enzi said. "Until you have a system that works you can't do that."