Taking the Paper out of the Paperwork; the Federal and State Governments Are Pushing the Medical Community to Update Their Use of Technology in Health Care, Beginning with Making All Medical Records Electronic. It's Already Taking Place on the First Coast

Article excerpt

Byline: SARAH SKIDMORE, The Times-Union

People can track their banking online but not their medical history. A car part can be ordered electronically, but the prescription for a life-saving drug may be scribbled on a pad of paper. Pet owners get an e-mail reminder for their pets' vaccination, but parents don't get the same alerts for their children.

The federal and state governments are pushing the medical community to update their use of technology in health care, beginning with making all medical records electronic. Northeast Florida hospitals and health care providers already use a variety of electronic methods to track patients' health information. But nationwide, only an estimated 13 percent of hospitals and 14 to 28 percent of physician offices use electronic health records.

"Our doctors have worked in the dark long enough," Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson told attendees at a health information technology summit in July.

The stacks of paper records are already disappearing from the First Coast, but nationally, the government would like to see all health care providers using secure electronic medical records -- making it easy to track everything from your weight at the last doctor's visit to the last visit to the emergency room. The conversion to electronic information systems are expected to reduce cost, limit errors, improve efficiency and quality of care.

President Bush said in April that all Americans should have electronic health records within 10 years. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently released its plan to reach that goal and connect health information nationwide, known as "The Decade of Health Information Technology."

GOING DIGITAL

"I had a patient ask me, 'Are you surfing the Web?' " said Felicia Olivier, physician at Faben Obstetrics and Gynecology practice. "Now I explain to patients, 'Just so you know, I'm not surfing the Web, I'm taking notes.' "

Olivier and her colleagues decided to open their new practice using electronic medical records, which they considered a progressive step, although some patients aren't familiar with it yet.

Traditionally, patients have a medical record used at a doctor's office, hospital or clinic. The information inside it comes from a number of places: patients' paperwork, physician notes or results from a lab. As the information builds, it creates a sort of physical legacy of a person's health. However, the paperwork system allows that history to become disjointed.

A physician could write a prescription without realizing it interacted with another the patient is already taking. An emergency room physician might not have access to a patient's history with a family physician. A surgery may be delayed while a patient's chart or CT scans are found.

"[A hospital visit] is such a tiny piece of life . . . a life record is much more important," said Roland Garcia, chief information officer for Baptist Health.

In an electronic medical record system, all input about a patient would be digitized. And under the government's goals, the information would be available on a secure system for all health care providers to access.

"The health care system will look different," said Keith Stein, chief medical officer for Baptist. "[It] facilitates rapid decision-making, with paper one has to fight over a single copy."

Every hospital in the Northeast Florida area provides some of its patient information electronically, and several are pushing the curve toward total electronic records use. Mayo Clinic Jacksonville began using electronic records in the early '90s and is able to share information with its other clinics. Numerous physicians at Shands Jacksonville use devices that resemble Palm Pilots for prescribing. At St. Vincent's Medical Center, an automated system alerts providers when a lab result or vital signs need added attention. …