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Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas

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Veterans Affairs Healthcare System No. 1

December 12, 2007 *

How the Once-Maligned VA Healthcare System
Becomes Best in Nation.

ABC World News with Charles Gibson
By Dr. Tim Johnson | Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Socialized medicine may sound un-American, but in fact, it's exactly what we provide to our American heroes -- the more than 5 million armed forces veterans and their families.

They get health care that the government both pays for and delivers. It's the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, and according to health care experts such as Phil Longman -- it's become one of the best health care systems in the country.

So how did the once-maligned VA transform itself?

"First and foremost, by pioneering electronic medical records," Longman said. "Which is a much bigger deal than it might sound."

Experts generally agree that electronic records are absolutely essential to significant health care reform. However, only about 5 percent of the nation's hospitals now have them.

That means, for example, that in most private hospitals 20 percent of lab tests are repeated simply because doctors can't find a patient's results.

But in the VA system, every patient's records are as close as a computer. It saves millions of dollars. And it's not just good business, it's good medicine.

Robert Williams has been a VA patient for 35 years. A few years ago, he moved from California to the East Coast and is now treated at the VA's Washington, D.C., Medical Center.

Williams wears a band that might look like a typical hospital ID but is actually an electronic monitoring device. His photo helps prevent identity errors, and the bar code keeps track of all his treatments and prevents medication errors. This hi-tech care isn't just a godsend for patients; nobody loves it more than doctors.

So why do VA hospitals, even with all their challenges, do this and private hospitals don't? The difference is the VA's life-long relationship with patients. It gives them a strong financial incentive to invest in technology that aids preventive medicine. And it works -- on both patients and the bottom line.

Study after study puts the VA system at the very top for fewer medical errors, for effective treatments, for lower costs and for patient satisfaction. And the VA delivers all of this for at least $1,500 less per year per patient than Medicare.

Though government can't just expand the VA system for the whole country (that's not possible politically or logistically), the basic concept is adaptable. The VA uses a system that keeps track of patients for a lifetime and uses electronic records to reduce errors and provide up-to-date proven treatment. That idea can be adopted by other insurance systems and hospitals.

Copyright © 2007 ABC News Internet Ventures

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