Electronic health records conference

Panelists at the Digital Health Conference on Wednesday in Madison included, from left, Judy Faulkner, founder and CEO of Epic Systems Corp.; Jamie Ferguson, vice president of health IT strategy and policy at Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente; and Frank D. Byrne, president of St. Mary's Hospital. They said it will take some time before electronic health records systems can share full information about a patient's health records. 

Electronic medical records may never connect every aspect of our lives — and it will be a few years before they start reducing costs — but they are ensuring the safety of health care, speakers told a Madison conference on Wednesday.

As computerized health information has grown in recent years, one of the ideals has been to put all of a patient’s health data in one place, easily accessible to family physicians, specialists and hospitals alike.

That’s not likely to happen, though, said Judy Faulkner, co-founder and chief executive of Verona-based Epic Systems Corp. Faulkner was one of the panelists at the Digital Healthcare Conference on Wednesday at UW-Madison’s Fluno Center.

In a question-and-answer session, Madison optometrist Scott Jens said that if one of his patients, for example, has a retina problem and needs to see a specialist at UW Hospital, he and the specialist don’t have digital access to each other’s records.

Jens, who also developed a cloud-based electronic records system for optometrists, RevolutionEHR, asked when programs such as his will be able to communicate with the bigger systems, such as Epic’s, which all of Madison’s hospitals have adopted.

From a practical perspective, Faulkner said, it would be virtually impossible for companies like Epic to create pathways to every single digital health records system.

“We would need thousands of programs,” Faulkner said, adding that Epic does train its customers on how they can make their own connections to other systems.

But she also said some health care providers are not adequately training their staff to use the electronic records systems, and some hospitals and clinics don’t want to see that “wherever the patient goes, that’s where the (health) record goes.”

Other panelists said they are not sold on the concept of letting patients download all of their health information into a personal health chart of their own choosing.

Jamie Ferguson, vice president of health information technology strategy and policy for Kaiser Permanente, said Kaiser held a pilot project on that and found the personal charts interpreted some data in different ways. “They take a lot of meaning out of our care,” he said.

Frank Byrne, president of St. Mary’s Hospital and a former practicing physician, agreed there are potential technology problems. With so many systems available, it’s hard to know what will work — and fit with St. Mary’s electronic records, he said.

“If you lined up all the people who have pitched personal health record (repositories) to me over the last 15 years ... the line would go to Camp Randall Stadium and back,” he said. “I like my chances better (of providing the information my health care provider would need) by pulling out my iPhone and pulling up MyChart,” Epic’s personal health chart.

Byrne also said electronic medical records have provided an extra measure of safety that patients might appreciate even though they’re not always a simple process. He said of 1,200 patients treated for congestive heart failure last year and later released, the system was able to verify that written discharge instructions were issued in all but three of the cases. But Byrne said the verification procedure is more cumbersome than it should be.

A report earlier this year by the Rand Corp. showed while digital health records were predicted to save money, the cost of health care has increased $800 billion over 2005 levels. Another conference speaker said, though, it is too soon to judge.

Milwaukee native Judy Murphy, a nurse and a deputy national coordinator at the U.S. Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, said the process is still in its first stage of capturing the information electronically. When that’s completed, creating efficiencies is more likely.

“This is an evolution and maturation of the industry that is naturally occurring. We need time to take the tools we are now installing and optimize their use,” Murphy said. She said it will take at least a couple of years to show cost gains.

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Judy Newman is a business reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.