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Preview: Electronic health records, tech choices explored at Digital Healthcare Conference

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt announced yesterday that a new organization, the American Health Information Community (AHIC) will be formed to make recommendations for a nationwide system for storing and sharing patient's medical records electronically.

This news makes the Digital Healthcare Conference, which will be held on June 8 and 9 at the Fluno Center in Madison, even more timely. Electronic health records are one of the many topics that the symposium will cover.

"This conference is exceedingly well timed," said John W. Kelly, MBA, CHE, Principal with Grindstone Healthcare Consulting, LLC. "It'll bring together issues about healthcare quality, [the cost of healthcare,] and patient safety, and make the case for why healthcare technology is a critical part of solving these issues. If you apply healthcare technology, you can solve all three of those issues simultaneously."

As the healthcare industry implements electronic health records, they will bring several crucial changes. Physicians, patients, pharmacists, and others involved in the healthcare practice will be able to access legible, complete information, no matter where the information was originally recorded.

This is the promise: Diagnosis will be easier and more accurate, patients will not undergo repeat tests, physicians will be able to avoid prescribing medicines without fearing reactions, and patients will not need to undergo repeat tests or fill out basic medical forms over and over.
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"Today, many physicians make decisions in the dark," said Seth Foldy, a doctor and conference speaker from Health.e.volution and the Medical College of Wisconsin. "Every patient in the emergency room is a stranger."

Without access to their patients' complete records, health care practitioners often have to make decisions and prescriptions without full knowledge of their allergies, or possible reactions with their current medications.

"With some of the tools that we can build into our electronic medical record systems, such as the clinical decision support devices, there are real-time warnings," said Raymond Zastrow, a doctor and a heathcare decision support instructor at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. "The alerts are huge. If you slip up and prescribe something that someone's allergic to, it's a nice safety net. ... With drug interactions, especially some of the serious ones that can lead to arrhythmias, it's nice that the system will pop up a warning and cause you to change course. You avoid some of those, 'Gee, if only I'd have known' gotchas."

While the benefits for physicians are great, patients may benefit even more from involvement they've never been able to experience with the current, paper records.

"Applications can be developed where patients can view their past historical information, and this can be pointed out to the patient that they may never have gotten lead screening test, be lacking in tetanus shots," Foldy said. "Patients [themselves] can pose questions to their healthcare professionals: 'Doctor, what does it mean that my blood pressure seems to be running above 140 systolic?'"

According to Carl Christensen, chief information officer of Marshfield Clinic, the industry is focusing on electronic health records because it's the first step – a "prerequisite" – to other technology that follows.

At the conference, Christensen will speak about the various technologies behind the "digital hospital."

Marshfield Clinic is implementing a system in which all of the information about a patient – from their vital signs, tests, and radiology results as they're taken to the prescriptions as they're written – will be recorded directly into each patient's electronic health record.

"They'll be creating a complete system from inpatient to outpatient care. That will be a dramatic change in the Wisconsin area. That will be the most integrated system in the state," Kelly said.

The state of Wisconsin, even before the Health and Human Resources' announcement has been working not only to implement fully-integrated EHR systems, but also to create a statewide equivalent of the AHIC. The Wisconsin Healthcare Information Exchange is currently being formed, according to Foldy, "to create interorganizational exchange of healthcare information", and to "get competing healthcare organizations to exchange information to improve the care of all patients, not just their patients."

"I think, right now, until information systems are linked between providers, they won't provide maximum value to each provider," Foldy said. "We know people are looking at purchasing electronic information systems. We think information exchange is critical to getting the best value from."

Jim Prekop, president and CEO of TeraMedica, hopes that this will help health-care providers eliminate the proprietary nature of their solutions, rather than needing to pay vendors for software in order to be able to open files from different systems.

"Providers [need] to articulate their priorities so that the vendor community can respond in the right way," Prekop said.

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