ELECTRONIC HEALTH RECORDS: To qualify for a piece of the $19 billion being offered through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, health care facilities will have to justify the significance of their IT investments to ensure they are "meaningful users" of EHRs. Image: © ISTOCKPHOTO.COM/VISUALFIELD
Electronic health records (EHRs) have received a lot of attention since the Obama administration committed $19 billion in stimulus funds earlier this year to encourage hospitals and health care facilities to digitize patient data and make better use of information technology. The healthcare industry as a whole, however, has been slow to adopt information technology and integrate computer systems, raising the question of whether the push to digitize will result in information that empowers doctors to make better-informed decisions or a morass of disconnected data.
The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) knows firsthand how difficult it is to achieve the former, and how easily an EHR plan can fall into the latter. UPMC has spent five years and more than $1 billion on information technology systems to get ahead of the EHR issue. While that is more than five times as much as recent estimates say it should cost a hospital system, UPMC is a mammoth network consisting of 20 hospitals as well as 400 doctors' offices, outpatient sites and long-term care facilities employing about 50,000 people.
UPMC's early attempts to create a universal EHR system, such as its ambulatory electronic medical records rolled out between 2000 and 2005, were met with resistance as doctors, staff and other users either avoided using the new technology altogether or clung to individual, disconnected software and systems that UPMC's IT department had implemented over the years.
On the mend
Although UPMC began digitizing some of its records in 1996, the turning point in its efforts came in 2004 with the rollout of its eRecord system across the entire health care network. eRecord now contains more than 3.6 million electronic patient records, including images and CT scans, clinical laboratory information, radiology data, and a picture archival and communication system that digitizes images and makes them available on PCs. The EHR system has 29,000 users, including more than 5,000 physicians employed by or affiliated with UPMC.
If UPMC makes EHR systems look easy, don't be fooled, cautions UPMC chief medical information officer Dan Martich, who says the health care network's IT systems require a "huge, ongoing effort" to ensure that those systems can communicate with one another. One of the main reasons is that UPMC, like many other health care organizations, uses a number of different vendors for its medical and IT systems, leaving the integration largely up to the IT staff.
Since doctors typically do not want to change the way they work for the sake of a computer system, the success of an EHR program is dictated not only by the presence of the technology but also by how well the doctors are trained on, and use, the technology. Physicians need to see the benefits of using EHR systems both persistently and consistently, says Louis Baverso, chief information officer at UPMC's Magee-Women's Hospital. But these benefits might not be obvious at first, he says, adding, "What doctors see in the beginning is that they're losing their ability to work with paper documents, which has been so valuable to them up until now."