Online records – a medical revolution

During my recent office visit, the doctor sat at a computer, typing notes, as I described my symptoms.

This was a new experience for me. And I liked it.

My regular physician –- trusted but busy — couldn’t give me an appointment for several days, and I needed help faster than that.

My usual doc is still a paper records guy, with row after row of manila folders in his office.

This was different. And while the physician’s typing at a computer may have subtracted some face time with me, I felt comfortable about what it meant: My information was staying inside that electronic system, ready to be accessed in a follow-up visit.

I’m sure my own doctor will eventually convert, too, and not only because of the financial incentives now available. The clinical need to be able to pass health information among providers — so it’s readily accessible, accurate, and doesn’t require wasteful duplicated tests — is  increasingly being called essential for good medical care.

On Friday, the Department of Community Health held a town hall meeting for medical professionals and hospital and IT industry officials on the state of health information technology in Georgia.

“Health IT holds the promise of transforming our health care system,’’ said David Cook, commissioner of the Community Health department, which runs Medicaid and the state employee health plan in Georgia.

Georgia is rapidly building its health IT infrastructure.

Currently, in Macon and Savannah and elsewhere in the state, doctors, clinics and hospitals are connected in a health information exchange so patient records can be transmitted across town.

Georgia is building a statewide exchange, fueled with a $13 million federal grant. It will be a pathway to securely transmit health information among physicians, hospitals, pharmacies, laboratories, imaging centers, and other medical sites.

The goals are to improve the quality of patient care and lower health costs.

Kelly Gonzalez, Community Health’s interim state health IT coordinator, said medical data exchanges promote increased clinician access to test results and other records, better coordination of care, and improved patient safety.

Patients will be able to access their own medical information electronically as well.

Financial incentives help persuade providers

Practical arguments for electronic data exchanges include doctors needing to know what regular medications or underlying conditions that a patient has when arriving unconscious at an emergency room.

A specialist connected to a patient’s medical record doesn’t have to repeat medical tests done at a primary care office. A prescription can be transmitted directly to a pharmacy.

The state’s information exchange will be up and running by the middle of next year, and will bring in existing information exchanges as well as attract new connections, said Gonzalez.

Meanwhile, another example of the new medical data world is occurring in Rome, where cancer patients are being linked to their providers electronically. The patients can have access to their own health information and a secure two-way communication and information exchange with providers.

For many physicians and hospitals, switching to electronic medical records is not an easy transition. There has been resistance from physicians, as this Kaiser Health News article demonstrates.

The No. 1 barrier to installing a system is cost, said Dr. Dominic Mack of  the Georgia Health IT Regional Extension Center. An IT system can cost roughly $20,000 per physician initially, according to the Kaiser article.

In some areas, technical issues create an obstacle to installing a medical records system, but Georgia HI-TREC is helping rural hospitals and health professionals solve these problems. The objective is to eventually reach a federal standard that providers must meet in order to receive financial bonus payments.

Meanwhile, hospitals, doctors and dentists who are major Medicaid providers are receiving financial incentives to develop their data systems.

Through annual incentive payments, eligible Medicaid professionals may receive $21,250 in their first year and up to a total of $63,750 during their years of participation.

More than $16 million in incentive pay has gone to Georgia hospitals and medical professionals since September.

But what about privacy?

Another big hurdle to large-scale information exchanges is concern over the privacy and security of health data. The number of reported medical data breaches has increased by 32 percent since 2010, according to a Ponemon Institute report.

Among the most notorious cases occurred at California’s Stanford Hospital. Private medical information for nearly 20,000 of its emergency room patients was exposed to public view on the Internet for nearly a year.

Gonzalez said Georgia ‘‘is taking an extra step’’ and consulting experts in the privacy and security fields as it builds its statewide exchange.

Dr. James Morrow, a Cumming family physician, told the town hall meeting that converting to electronic records improves care.

Electronic medical records represent ‘‘a tremendous change –- a tremendous benefit,’’ Morrow said. And by eliminating duplication of tests and administrative expense, he added, “it will save you a fortune.’’

Here’s a GHN story about Atlanta being the national leader in health IT companies.