By KATHRYN FLAGG
MIDDLEBURY — Porter Medical Center is moving forward with an expensive but potentially life-saving plan to transition to electronic medical records.
Once in place, hospital officials hope, electronic medical records could smooth transitions for patients being transferred between hospitals, save time and money at doctors’ offices, and improve patient care.
But the full transition, once Porter chooses a company to oversee the switch, could take as long as two and a half or three years, and ballpark estimates place the cost of creating an electronic records system between $3 million and $5 million.
Assuming that Porter selects a suitable contractor in May or June, said Porter Vice President for Finance Duncan Brines, the switch to electronic records likely won’t begin to kick in until at least late next winter or early spring.
Once that switch happens, said Ron Hallman, the medical center’s vice president for development and community relations, Porter might qualify for reimbursement through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
For the medical center’s patients, the transition will largely occur behind the scenes.
That doesn’t mean it won’t improve patient care, Brines said, offering the example of a trauma patient who might need to be transferred to Fletcher Allen in Burlington. That patient would head north with an electronic medical record rather than a paper file, a difference that could expedite the transfer. The electronic file would include the patient’s medical history, as well as photographs and notes especially tailored for the doctors on the receiving end.
On a day-to-day basis, he said, electronic records will likely save both patients’ and doctors’ time, cut back on mistakes, and protect files from potential destruction.
For now, Brines said, Porter is focusing on selecting the right company and technology to do the job. They’ve narrowed their choice down to two vendors who will each be visiting the hospital next month to run demonstrations of their products.
In addition to considering the cost of a new electronic medical records system, Brines said, Porter is also eager to find a system that will be compatible with other Vermont health care providers, is easy for Porter employees to use, and that won’t become out-of-date quickly.
Protecting patient privacy, Brines said, is another a key concern for the hospital.
“The security issues are something we have to deal with every day,” he said. “We have security systems now. They’re always changing. The number of potential viruses and ways of accessing confidential data are just enormous. We are just continuously updating whatever systems we have.”
In a perfect world, he said, the system would integrate clinical applications, financial and billing services, and administrative functions.
Right now, employees from all of those departments are weighing in on the proposed systems.
“It’s not three people in an office around a computer,” Brines said. “It’s really nurses, doctors, lab techs, billers, medical record people. It’s any number of people involved in the review.”
He admitted that any electronic system will eventually become outdated, but said that now seems like the right time for Porter to move forward with the transition.
“Should you wait or not?” Brines asked. “If you keep waiting, you wait forever.”
What’s more, he said, the transition to this technology has been on Porter’s radar screen for six or seven years. Now, Brines went on, the first wave of hospitals have already implemented medical records, and Porter is in a position to learn from their successes and failures.
“As a small rural hospital we don’t want to take chances on technology that may or may not be cutting edge,” Brines said. “We’d like somebody else to work out some of the bugs. (Now) we think we’re in a reasonably good spot.”
Porter won’t be alone as they move toward an electronic medical records system. The recovery bill signed by President Barack Obama in February commits $19 billion in grants and incentives for companies and practices to buy health information technology, and Brines said that Vermont is also making a big push for sharing data, and creating compatible records that can be shared between facilities.
“We’re all going through a process,” Brines said. “Over the next two to three years you’re going to see a major investment in information technology.”