Why the US health system still prioritizes fax machines: 7 things to know

Fax machines account for 75 percent of all medical communication, according to a report by Vox.

While most industries abandoned the use of fax machines to transmit data during the 1990s, the medical industry is still heavily reliant on the technology to send information between health institutions, the report states.

Here are seven takeaways regarding the health industry's use of fax machines, according to Vox.

1. Former President Barack Obama signed a stimulus package into law in February 2009 that included more than $30 billion to incentivize physicians to adopt digital health records. The law also called on the ONC to develop a program to distribute the funds. EHR use grew from 9 percent in 2008 to 83 percent in 2015 due to the administration's incentives, the report states.

2. While the transition to EHRs allowed physicians within the same facility easier access to patient information, the Obama administration's incentives didn't account for the need to share records between various organizations, leaving a significant number of institutions to continue faxing the necessary records.

3. David Blumenthal, MD, president of The Commonwealth Fund and head of the ONC from 2011 to 2013, told Vox officials were slightly naive in expecting competing hospitals to share patient information.

"We don't expect Amazon and Walmart to share background on their customers, but we [did] expect competing hospital system[s] to do so," Dr. Blumenthal said. "Those institutions consider that data proprietary and an important business asset. We should never have expected it to occur naturally, that these organizations would readily adopt information exchange."

4. There are also additional economic incentives for physicians to continue using fax machines and to keep from sharing patient records. While it may be more convenient for the patient if physicians from various institutions all have access to their records, sharing records also makes it easier for patients to see competing providers. By making patient records accessible only to physicians within the same system, patients are more encouraged to stick with those providers, the report states.

5. Dr. Blumenthal said the incentives the Obama administration devised required hospitals to have the ability to share information, but didn't mandate that they do so. According to Dr. Blumenthal, most hospitals made the rational business decision not to invest in digital technologies that would make it easier for competitors to potentially swipe their patients.

6. Competing EHR companies also do not have much incentive to make their technologies compatible with other EHR platforms because it minimizes their competitive advantage in the marketplace, the report states.

7. Farzad Mostashari, MD, co-founder and CEO of Aledade and former head of the ONC after Dr. Blumenthal, told Vox the only way to get rid of the fax machine is to outlaw it. However, Don Rucker, MD, who currently leads the ONC, reportedly believes better designed EHRs will allow healthcare providers to share and transfer data more freely, according to the report.

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