Health emergencies highlight need for trusted identities

By John Pulley
01:00 AM
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Protecting the public's health, particularly in emergencies, requires sophisticated information systems that can quickly and accurately assess the qualifications of doctors and nurses in multiple jurisdictions, said panelists at a recent meeting of health care information technology specialists in Washington, D.C.

"Credentials of the future will have to look very different from what they look like today," said Dale Austin, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) and one of several experts who made presentations at the briefing "Medical Credentialing: Are We Ready?"

To get ready, public and private organizations at the national, state and local levels are developing independent IT solutions for verifying health care professionals' identities, credentials, expertise and competence, panelists said. A primary objective of enhanced verification is to thwart what one speaker called the "fakers, con artists and artful dodgers" who seek to subvert the system for confirming medical professionals' qualifications.

Investment in health care IT "is good medicine for the American people," said Robert Laurence, president of the IT Association of America, which sponsored the program.

Last year's hurricanes on the Gulf Coast underscored the necessity of bolstering the verification of medical credentials. Much of the health care infrastructure in the affected area was hobbled by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and verifying the credentials of doctors who arrived to provide aid was difficult. Confirming the qualifications of doctors who had left the area to practice medicine elsewhere was challenging, too.

FSMB set up ad hoc systems that verified 1,200 doctors' licenses in a six-week period. Too often, however, receiving verification results took days instead of hours.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Veterans Health Administration helped, using the VetPro database to confirm the qualifications of doctors in its system. VetPro is based on a three-tier architecture that links optical, data and Web servers.

"We had complete credentials on all VA physicians who wanted to go," said Kathryn Enchelmayer, the VHA's director of credentialing and privileging.

However, verifying credentials is relatively easy compared with validating competence, said Christopher McLaughlin, director of the Department of Health and Human Services' Emergency System for Advance Registration of Volunteer Health Professionals initiative.

"Hospitals are hesitant to accept volunteers who don't have a high level of credential verification," McLaughlin said. "It's more than verifying identity."

Pulley is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.