U.S. health officials proposed standards for electronic medical records on Wednesday, seeking to spur the technology in hopes of cutting health costs and reducing medical errors.

Congress required the standards as part of about $19 billion in this year's economic stimulus bill that was targeted at encouraging doctors and hospitals to convert paper records into digital files.

The proposals seek to define meaningful use of electronic health records, in order for health care providers to be eligible for incentive payments.

One proposed usage measure would require that at least 80 percent of all patients who request an electronic copy of their health records receive it within 48 hours.

Electronic health records have been available for years, but many doctors' offices remain mired in paper.

Widespread adoption of electronic health records holds great promise for improving health care quality, efficiency, and patient safety, David Blumenthal, the national coordinator for Health Information Technology, said in a statement.

Part of the problem is that despite dozens of available software choices, there has been no clear standard so that information is easily shared between different providers or hospitals.

With no clear choice, many have been reluctant to spend money on systems that could quickly become obsolete.

February's stimulus bill directed the Department of Health and Human Services to offer standards by the end of the year.

The proposals, which are expected be finalized next year after a public comment period, could affect companies such as Allscripts-Misys Healthcare Solutions Inc, Cerner Corp and McKesson Corp.

Larger technology companies such as General Electric's GE Healthcare unit, Siemens, Microsoft Corp and Google Inc are also involved in the health information technology business.

(Reporting by Karey Wutkowski and Susan Heavey; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)