This spring, before Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in Virginia went live with eCare, its electronic health record (EHR) system, hospitalist Ryan Van Gomple, MD, would admit patients using the same system physicians have used for decades: hastily scrawled patient history notes, paper orders, and phone dictation. But eCare’s introduction—and subsequent tweaking in the past few months—has brought a radical transition to the 543-bed tertiary-care facility. Dr. Van Gomple and other hospitalists at institutions on similar systems can enter and access a patient’s data using desktop computers, handheld devices like Blackberrys or iPhones—even their personal laptops at home.
“One of the advantages is we can go back … not only with notes from the hospital stay; a lot of people are doing outpatient notes in the system, so you can start to piece together a total picture of a person’s medical care,” says Dr. Van Gomple, a hospitalist with Sentara Medical Group. “That’s one of the big goals of [EHR]—to have a streamlined system. One of the challenges is, How do you connect with different systems? That’s a great question.”
Dr. Van Gomple might not have the answer, but thanks to ambitious goals laid out by President Obama, the topic is in the national spotlight and already has nearly $20 billion in stimulus money scheduled for release in July 2010. Digitizing healthcare records to create a more efficient care delivery system—through improved record keeping, shortened patient length of stay (LOS), and increased ED throughput—isn’t a new idea. Hospitals have struggled for more than a decade with the EHR question, debating whether they should—not to mention how they would—create a computerized system to input patient records into a database that is accessible in real time to hospitalists, nurses, primary-care physicians, insurers, and so on. There have been long-stalled discussions on how to settle privacy concerns that arise from electronic records (see “EHR Upgrade Faces Privacy, Communication Obstacles,” p. 27). Still, a multi-billion-dollar federal pledge has created a moment in time to take EHR beyond the discussion phase.
The Office of the National Coordinator of Health Information Technology (ONCHIT) is empowered to shepherd this process. David Blumenthal, MD, MPP, the director of the Institute for Health Policy, a joint effort of Massachusetts General Hospital and Partners Healthcare System, has been named as ONCHIT’s head. Money to entice hospitals to invest in EHR is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. And with Congress hammering out the details of healthcare reform legislation, a sharper focus has been placed on the potential efficiencies EHR can offer.
Money and attention aren’t the only keys to this puzzle, however. IT advocates, medical information officers, and HM group leaders say the government spotlight is a wonderful springboard, but they also say physician involvement in implementing the EHR technology is a must and will spur more hospitals to adopt the systems. Less than 8% of U.S. hospitals have EHR in at least one unit, the New England Journal of Medicine reported earlier this year.1 Just 1.5% of hospitals have a comprehensive system in all of their units.
“There are so many barriers getting to where our country really needs to get,” says Dirk Stanley, MD, MPH, a hospitalist and chief medical informatics officer at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, Mass. “One of the big issues is the meaningful use, and how do you actually set criteria for your using electronic health records the right way? If you look at the big picture, you’re talking about so many clinical practices. … How do you write criteria that are meaningful to all those different settings? The government has an enormous challenge.”