For staff members at Alliance of Chicago health clinics, flipping through mounds of paperwork took valuable time away from treating patients. But the clinics' use of electronic medical records let the staff be doctors and nurses again, not file clerks.
“Clinical staff, instead of spending their time trying to track down information, now they can spend their time interacting with patients,” says CEO Fred Rachman, whose company started using digital records about eight years ago.
That was the message from Vice President Joe Biden, who yesterday morning announced the release of nearly $1.2 billion to help health care providers implment electronic records systems. Flanked by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Biden told about 75 doctors in the audience that digital records will improve health outcomes and efficiency — and save taxpayers billions.
“We are trying to modernize. This ain’t about government control,” Biden said at a roundtable discussion with doctors at Sinai Community Institute. "All this sounds fancy, but it's really just modernizing the system that's going to make health care safer."
The money, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, will help hospitals and other health care providers implement networked electronic medical records systems, with which patient information can be shared among different health care systems. Some money will be given to states to foster information sharing.
“This is a way to get the resources into the hands of people who need them,” says Peter Ingram, chief information officer for Mt. Sinai Health System. Ingram was one of seven panelists who spoke with Biden and Sebelius yesterday morning.
Ingram says the information exchange is critical to diagnosing patients quickly and correctly.
“Let’s say there’s a patient that shows up in our emergency department that has been at Cook County (Hospital). Unless we have a way to see into their system or exchange information with them, we don’t know, for example, that that patient is allergic to penicillin or has heart disease,” Ingram says.
Electronic medical records have been growing in popularity, even before President Barack Obama noted their importance in a June speech in Chicago to the American Medical Association.
Ingram says Mt. Sinai has been using some sort of electronic records systems since the 1990s. The Cook County Health and Hospital System is heralding the use of a new electronic system at its hospitals.
But some doctors worry that current electronic record systems use old technology, which is difficult to upgrade.
The program introduced yesterday would allow for cross-platform collaboration.
Dr. David Baker, an internist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, said electronic records make a huge difference in his ability to treat patients. In one recent case, he was able to log on to a computer, review a patient’s records and come up with a treatment program in a matter of minutes.
But another patient, who came in with pneumonia and was diagnosed with leukemia, is another story.
“I got the patient in a few days later to see me, and I still don’t have that patient’s records. I still don’t have critical information that I need to make a decision, and we had to reorder some very expensive (tests),” he said, as Biden interrupted him, noting the number of doctors in the audience shaking their heads.
Ingram says the systems can save taxpayers money by preventing unnecessary procedures, supporting preventative care and helping doctors perform otherwise expensive clinical research.
“Now you can have access into the charts, and do that for a tenth or a hundredth of the cost,” he says. “The potential impact on really learning how to best treat these conditions is one of the huge upsides of electronic medical record systems.”
Rachman says electronic databases will help physicians make smarter decisions for their patients.
“It’s a tool then for coordinating all those services and bringing all that information around the patient,” he says.
Daily News Staff Writer Alex Parker covers public health. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 17, or alex [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.