Written by Christy Williams, Public Information Officer at the Arkansas Office of Health Information Technology
Remember about 15 years ago how heavy and bulky cell phones were and how you could only call someone who used the same mobile carrier?
Technology has matured quite a bit since then and those days of “can you hear me now?” are a thing of the past. But when it comes to health care—a field with some of the most advanced technology available today—why are some doctors still using obsolete tools like fax machines to send referrals and other health information?
While the use of fax machines has been phasing out over the last five years, thanks to the widespread adoption of electronic health record systems (EHRs), many doctors still rely on them because health information technology is at that same awkward stage in its evolution as the cell phone industry once was. The technology is there—more than half of all health care providers are using EHRs instead of paper systems—but the products don’t communicate.
And that’s where Health Information Exchanges (HIEs) come in. They’re critical to ensuring that the health care system does not move from paper-based silos to electronic silos. If my primary care doctor, dermatologist and gynecologist can’t easily share their pieces of my health information and then use that new information to make better decisions about my health, their EHRs are little more than digital filing cabinets.
HIEs are secure computer networks that gather your medical information from the EHRs of your different caregivers to create a single electronic health record that any of your providers can access. They have the potential to improve the way health care is coordinated and managed, can eliminate duplicate testing and reduce mistakes—especially in emergencies.
States across the country are developing HIEs under a federal grant program. My home state, Arkansas, has a statewide HIE known as SHARE (State Health Alliance for Records Exchange) that is operated by the Office of Health Information Technology. It’s no secret that Arkansas consistently ranks at the bottom of national health indicators. Our vision for SHARE is a healthier state population and an improved health care system in which caregivers and patients have the right health information at the right time to make the right decisions.
SHARE is in the early stages of adoption and became available to Arkansas health care providers in December 2012. Since then, more than 110 hospitals and clinic sites have signed up and are in various stages of connecting to and using the HIE. Three hospital systems are currently pushing patient health data into the HIE, and more than 465,000 patients (out of 2.9 million residents) who are seen at these hospitals have chosen to make their health information available through SHARE so far.
We’re also taking steps to make SHARE as affordable and functional as possible. On behalf of the provider community, we’ve negotiated statewide agreements with EHR vendors that reduce or eliminate the vendors’ one-time fees for an interface that connects to SHARE and shortens the implementation timeline. We’ve partnered with Get Real Health to offer participating providers an award-winning Patient Portal option that will give their patients access to their complete medical record as it appears within SHARE and enable providers to meet the view / download / transmit patient engagement requirements for Meaningful Use Stage 2. Arkansas Public Health registries are connecting to SHARE and will soon enable providers to automate immunizations, electronic lab reporting and syndromic surveillance submissions through the HIE instead of through costly, individual EHR interfaces.
All of these HIE efforts in Arkansas and across the nation are modernizing the way patient health information is stored and shared, simplifying care coordination as we move from one caregiver to the next. It may be a couple years before we can see the value HIEs bring to the health care providers and patients they touch. But we are certainly moving away from the paper charts and faxes of last century. And just as it took time for cell phones to evolve into smartphones, health information technology is on a similar path.
I am so thankful that I can call or text my parents, who use a different mobile carrier than me. And I am eagerly looking ahead to the day when widespread adoption of HIEs means I won’t have to call my mom to ask her, yet again, what year I had my appendix removed. Because all of my doctors and I will already have that information at our fingertips.