Mass. town first with community health network

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North Adams, Mass., is about to become the first town in which residents have electronic medical records that in an instant can be viewed by any physician and many nurses in the community, according to an article in the Boston Globe. The city of about 14,000 residents in the northern Berkshires, is about to turn on its computer health network. Similar networks of shared patient information are scheduled to go live in two other Massachusetts communities this summer, and doctors are working on a system for Boston as well as ways to link doctors and hospitals across the state.

Although "what you're seeing in North Adams is revolutionary," said Dr. John Halamka, chief information officer for Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, the town’s experience shows just how challenging it will be to switch to computerized records on a large scale, and link them into a network that allows so many people access. Every family must be asked to sign consent forms allowing their health information to be entered into the system. Learning to use computerized records slowed down some doctors to the point that they lost business, seeing 20 to 50 percent fewer patients, according to the article. Doctors and office staff are struggling to find time to type and scan information from thousands of pages of paper medical records into the electronic records, and many say that process won't be complete for months or maybe years. Still, only one practice so far has refused to participate.

North Adams’ struggles, a city with 75 doctors in private practice and one small hospital, will pale in comparison to the challenges of a similar effort in a bigger community such as Boston. There, large, competing hospital systems and physician networks using different systems make it a more complex venture.

About 49 percent of doctors in Massachusetts, mostly in large teaching hospitals, and 15 to 20 percent of doctors nationally, now use computerized records, although they usually are not linked across practices or hospitals. In North Adams, 80 percent of doctors will have electronic medical records by May, said David Delano, director of information technology for Northern Berkshire Healthcare, which includes North Adams Regional Hospital.

Using a $50 million grant from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts eHealth Collaborative is helping North Adams, Newburyport, and Brockton establish community-wide networks to demonstrate their feasibility. North Adams will be the first site where all the computerized records will be connected throughout the community. To guard against unauthorized access to the most sensitive patient information, doctors will create full electronic medical records for their patients that would reside only on that doctor's computer. Separate community medical records, called the eHealth summary, will reside on a shared network and can be viewed by most caregivers.