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Area hospitals now a part of health information exchange

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An online health information exchange now connects the five hospitals within a 40-mile radius of Fort Drum.

Through the exchange, created through the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization, patients’ medical records can be sent electronically among Samaritan Medical Center, Watertown; E.J. Noble Hospital, Gouverneur; Carthage Area Hospital; Lewis County General Hospital, Lowville, and River Hospital, Alexandria Bay.

All of those hospitals went live with the system in mid-October, said Corey M. Zeigler, who is information technology program manager for the planning organization.

“The last piece was imaging, to view CAT scans and MRIs, regardless of where they came from,” he said.

The system, called HealtheConnections, has linked 15 community hospitals across 11 counties in Central and Northern New York, according to the planning organization.

Those five hospitals also have been linked to dozens of primary care providers within the North Country Health Information Partnership. That part of the project used $900,000 from a federal Rural Health Information Technology Development grant.

Mr. Zeigler said now that primary care providers have been connected, the group will focus on chronic diseases and specialists associated with those diseases.

“When a doctor was a generalist, he knew everything about you, and it was easy,” Mr. Zeigler said. “As the health care system’s gotten more complex, we keep splintering into sub-specialities. ... A lot of times there’s co-morbidity or mental health issues and the patient’s back in the hospital. Patient-centered medical homes could prevent readmissions.”

Dr. Edward L. Reason said diabetes will be studied next.

Implementing the entire electronic health records system has been a strenuous process for Dr. Reason, who started practicing internal medicine 25 years ago. He has an office in Gouverneur.

“It’s some growing pains getting started,” he said Monday. “Back then, we didn’t even have a computer for billing.”

The transition is sure to improve communication between doctor and patient, he said. Electronic health records will enhance service, not replace in-person doctor-patient time.

In 2009, the planning organization received a $6.7 million Health Care Efficiency and Affordability Law for New Yorkers grant to begin implementing an electronic medical records system and health information exchange. The initial goal was to improve care for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Mr. Zeigler said he hopes all health care providers within the 40-mile radius of Fort Drum will be connected to the system by the end of 2014.

Soon, patient portals will go online, he said, so with patient consent, family members can access that health information. Physicians will be sent reminders if a patient has an appointment with a specialist that he or she missed.

Providers buy their own electronic medical records system to be hooked up to the larger network.

All of this health information technology work has been completed with a total of $13.4 million in local, state and federal funds, Mr. Zeigler said.

Another step in the process, he said, will be working with the federal government to get Fort Drum completely hooked up to the system.

“Right now it’s only one way,” Mr. Zeigler said. “We’re only feeding into Fort Drum. They need that reciprocity.”

Mr. Zeigler said a pilot program is taking place in Buffalo, where the Department of Defense is allowing reciprocity through the Veterans Affairs Medical Center. If the north country can learn from that pilot program, he said, that could be the missing link to having a complete electronic health records system by the end of 2014.

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