A couple of years ago, I was visiting a friend in Washington DC who was suddenly badly injured in a fall. I duly rushed him to a nearby hospital, tried to explain to the medical staff what had happened, and then encountered a big, unexpected hitch.
Back in the UK, where I used to live, I took it for granted that a doctor who needed someone’s health records could place a phone call or tap a computer button and get (more or less) what they needed. To be sure, there are issues of data privacy; and sometimes records get lost. But my experience of the UK National Health System suggested that data could always be assembled fairly fast — unless the patient objected.
But in the Washington DC hospital, I discovered that it was virtually impossible for doctors to get a quick oversight of someone’s medical history or even to see the most basic facts if these were scattered between different hospitals, even after a few hours’ delay, and even if the patient (or his family) agreed. In this case, for example, my friend had dealt with different hospitals along the East Coast. As a result, his data could not be quickly assembled, and the doctors ended up filling in the forms on the basis of some (highly unscientific) guesses from him.
I have since come to realise that this was not an unusual experience. In much of the US, medical data is held in various records that are very hard to gather together. My commonplace tale reflects a peculiar paradox in a country that prides itself on having some of the most cutting-edge technology in the world — just think of Apple, Google and Amazon. So it is perhaps no surprise that a host of savvy new tech players are trying to enter the medical data field, hoping — belatedly — to push it into the 21st century.