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VOL. 125 | NO. 246 | Monday, December 20, 2010

Providers Elevate Need for Improved IT

By Aisling Maki

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The pressure continues for health care providers to complete the transition from paper charts to electronic health records technology.

The 2009 American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA), otherwise known as the stimulus bill, allocated just under $25 billion for health information technology investment and incentives.

“That provided incentives for providers to implement and use electronic medical records,” said Michael Drake, CEO of masterIT, a Bartlett-based managed service provider that provides technology solutions for various types of small businesses, including health care clients. “It’s imperative for them to do that now. Typically, it’s $44,000 for a physician to demonstrate what’s called meaningful use – using electronic records in a meaningful way – beginning in 2011. That will last until 2015. If they have not adopted it by 2015 through 2018, the reimbursement schedule will actually decrease.”

Drake also said health care reform, which will add millions to the ranks of the insured, has generated more interest in companies like his from health care providers racing to ensure that their IT infrastructure is solid and electronic health records (EHR) ready.

While many larger medical facilities and groups have adopted EHR technology over the last few years, many smaller physician practices, especially those in more rural areas, continue to lag behind.

“Most practices don’t have the right infrastructure to run that software. They’re kind of in the ’90s still,” Drake said. “If they wait to move forward, they’re not going to have many options. There could be a lot more demand than there is supply to help people make the transition.”

One place that’s turning out experts in the IT field is the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, which offers a Master of Health Informatics and Information Management. The program trains individuals to understand all aspects of health care IT from electronic health records implementation to clinical data analysis.

Dr. Rebecca Reynolds, chair of the Department of Health Informatics and Information Management, said the goal is to turn out professionals who will thrive in an information-driven, technology-supported health care environment.

“We provide the academic education for people who are going into the field to work on these implementations in health IT,” said Reynolds, herself a 1993 graduate of the program.

Reynolds said that not only does the federal government want physicians to have electronic systems, but it wants them to have certain functionalities, including the ability to communicate electronically to patients and receive information from other providers.

“In the future, meaningful use will actually be a condition of the amount of reimbursement providers will receive,” she said.

The ability to access electronic health records systems offers quality-of-life benefits for patients.

Patient portals provide time-saving measures such as pre-registration, quick online bill payment, remote appointment scheduling and confirmation, prescription refills and faster access to lab results.

It also simplifies the transfer of patient records between health care providers, ensuring that costly tests aren’t being repeated unnecessarily.

“One of the disadvantages of the paper record was that if I had the paper record, then no one else had it,” Reynolds said. “In the electronic system, if you’re a legitimate user, multiple people can access the record at one time and access it remotely.”

Drake said that while EHR systems make practices more competitive and profitable, they also pose many challenges, including piracy, security breaches that can result in medical identity theft, questions of data ownership and the risk of system crashes.

“If you have all of your practice management in a network and that network goes down, you literally can’t treat patients, build revenue or file insurance claims,” Drake said. “It’s very important not to go down.”

Like any other information technology system, finding solutions to the complexities of EHR systems is a constantly evolving process.

“Technology in all practices is a journey; it’s not a destination,” Drake said. “When you think about how much technology has changed over the last five years, that pace of innovation will continue.”

But old-fashioned physical security continues to be one of the most common and often-overlooked risks. Drake said many companies do little to prevent access to servers that store sensitive patient information.

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