Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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The fax machine still underpins public health systems

Sobering story from Sarah Kliff and Margot Sanger-Katz in the New York Times about one of the impediments to coronavirus response and tracking: the fax machine.

Dr. Mark Escott, the interim health authority for the city of Austin and Travis County, says his office is receiving around 1,000 faxes a day, including duplicate results. Some faxes are meant for other jurisdictions, and many are missing crucial information needed for his office to investigate cases. Most such faxes in Austin are being sent to a computer, but they still need to be printed and manually entered into public health databases.

Mind-boggling how much of healthcare still relies on the “cutting edge” of 1990s tech. While physicians offices and hospitals have gotten pushed to update to electronic medical records, the Times story points out that public health infrastructure hasn’t been subject to the same initiatives.

In the early 2010s, the federal government spent billions to encourage doctors to replace fax machines with electronic records. That program, known as the HITECH Act, did not include similar funding for public health departments, to help them automatically digitize faxes and other nonstandard results. Nor did it require hospitals and doctor’s offices to build technology that would automatically send relevant test results to local health officials.

Moreover, our healthcare system is much more decentralized than many other countries, which makes it an increasing challenge to coordinate the response to a public health crisis like we’re in now.


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