Electronic health records are the new frontier in health care

By Tara Kaprowy
Kentucky Health News

Just two years ago, the acronym EHR didn’t mean much to many people. But since Congress passed the health-care reform law last year, physicians and hospitals have become intimately acquainted with it — and patients may follow suit.

EHRs are electronic health records. They are quickly being adopted by hospitals and physicians as the federal government begins to pay out $19 billion in incentives: extra Medicare and Medicaid payments. Kentucky health care facilities and providers have been especially eager to sign up, perhaps because so few of the state’s doctors had adopted EHRs. Kentucky doctors’ offices were the least digitized in the nation last year, according to a national survey.

An EHR is a digitized copy of a person’s health record, essentially replacing the file folder that has typically held handwritten information about a patient. It generally contains information about a patient’s laboratory and radiology results, diagnoses, prescriptions and other treatment.

EHRs’ advantage is their easier accessiblity. Rather than being locked in a doctor’s office, the information, in theory, can be accessed by other health-care providers, regardless of which one the patient is seeing. “It’s about the information always moving with you,” said Nancy Szemraj, spokeswoman for the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.

“That’s like the pot of gold,” said Jeff Brady, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Electronic Health Information. “If you’ve been to six different hospitals and three different doctor’s offices, literally all of that data can be viewed.”

EHRs are expected to reduce unnecessary tests and treatment because they will list tests that have been performed, and to reduce the potential for medical errors, because they containing such cautionary information as the patient’s allergies.
Protecting your information
One risk of electronic health records is the potential for the information being leaked, lost, altered or merely read by an unauthorized person. Leaks can be purposeful or by accident. In January, the private information of thousands of people who visited the Green River District Health Department in Owensboro was found online, where it had been mistakenly available for several months.
Brady acknowledged the danger of unauthorized access, but said safeguards have been taken to avoid it. Participating providers in the Kentucky Health Information Exchange, the state clearinghouse for EHRs, have to sign several agreements in which they attest the information they obtain will be used responsibly.

“The golden rule is this data will only be viewed by a provider who is providing care to a patient,” Brady said. To make sure that is happening, he said, the software has an audit function, in which administrators are able to see who looks at a patient’s data, when they did, from what computer and what piece of data they examined.

The national network will not be a database, and thus not in danger of being hacked, said Szemraj, of the national office. “It’s simply a means to securely push and pull information as needed,” she said, citing an example of a person traveling around the country and falling ill in New York City. “At that time, they would be able to tap into your medical record in your home base and say, ‘I want to pull your medical information.’ It’s not literally sitting out there in a repository where anybody could hack into it.”
To set up EHR systems, hospitals and doctors choose from a list of federally approved software. The programs don’t “necessarily have to communicate with each other,” Brady said, “but they do have to conform to certain standards that would allow them to communicate with a health information exchange.”
The state’s exchange has been operating in the pilot stage since April 2010. It will act as a “middleman” between hospitals and health care providers, Brady said. “We will be the hub and all information will flow from a provider, to us, back to another provider.”
Under ideal circumstances, Brady said he hopes to see half of the state’s hospitals and doctors’ offices connected to the exchange by the end of the year, with the other half signed on by the end of 2012. That may be ambitious, since a recent survey showed Kentucky had the lowest percentage of doctors’ offices that have adopted EHRs, just 38 percent, compared to 51 percent nationwide.
While Kentucky builds its exchange, other states are doing the same. Eventually, the goal is to create a National Health Information Network that will allow information to flow from state to state. That will be especially beneficial to Kentucky, Brady said, “because we have so many hospitals and medical facilities on our border. We’re talking to Tennessee and Ohio about exchanging data with them. There’s going to be a lot of development in the next 12 months.”
But when will the state information exchange or national network be useable? Brady said no date has been set for the state exchange, and Szemraj said of the national network, “We are truly just beginning.”
Cost savings?
The Obama administration and other supporters of the health-reform law say EHRs will save money. A 2005 study by the RAND Corp. indicated that implementing EHRs and networks could eventually save more than $81 billion per year by improving health care efficiency and safety, but that study was theoretical in nature and assumed 100 percent compliance, Drs. Jerome Groopman and Pamela Hartzband wrote in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal.

Some data show EHRs do not necessarily improve patient care, the doctors wrote, pointing to a study published in the journal Circulation that reviewed the influence of EHRs on the quality of care received by more than 15,000 patients with heart failure. It concluded that “Current use of electronic health records results in little improvement in the quality of heart-failure care compared with paper-based systems.”

Another study looked at the Department of Veterans Affairs‘ health information technology investments and estimated a potential value of $3.1 billion “in cumulative benefits net of investment costs.” But Brandon Glenn of Medcity pointed out “the study’s lead researcher stressed the dollar amount reflects only what’s possible — not actual savings.”
The prevailing opinion in the industry is that EHRs will save money, but no one is really sure how much. On the expectation of savings, the health-reform law calls for extra Medicare and Medicaid payments to providers as incentives to adopt the technology. Providers have until 2014 to adopt EHRs. If they don’t, Medicare will start penalizing them by paying them less in Medicare payments.

A rural equalizer?

Since the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services started distributing EHR incentive payments in January, Kentucky hospitals and other health-care providers have received more than $18 million of about $38 million handed out nationwide so far. University of Kentucky Healthcare and Central Baptist Hospital, which together received $4.1 million, were the first facilities in the nation to receive the extra payments. In the next four years, Kentucky hospitals are expected to receive more than $100 million in incentives.

For a spreadsheet of incentives paid to Kentucky providers through last week, click here.

To receive the incentives, which can mean up to more than $60,000 for eligible professionals and millions for hospitals, applicants must prove their EHR systems are being used in a meaningful way. To show “meaningful use” in the first of three stages — the only stage that, so far, has been officially defined — eligible professionals must show “continuous quality improvement and ease of information exchange,” according to regulations in the Federal Register. Professionals must meet 25 measures, hospitals 24, to prove meaningful use. One measure, for example, is the ability to send electronic data to the state’s immunization registry.

The list of incentives already paid shows providers in the most rural to the most urban areas areas of Kentucky are switching over at equally rapid rates. In fact, two of the few hospitals already linked up to the Kentucky Health Information Exchange are Pikeville Medical Center and Murray-Calloway County Hospital, both outside metropolitan areas.
Brady said the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology “is very interested in rural areas, the critical-access hospitals, the very small but important hospitals . . . that typically get left out on technology. This an effort to bring them along and be the equalizer.”
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