North Carolina patient records migrate slowly to digital format

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Cabarrus Family Medicine is among the first wave of Charlotte, N.C.-based physician groups to manage patient care electronically, according to the Charlotte Business Journal (CBJ).

"It's not an easy thing to do, and it's not cheap," said Tom Earnhardt, a physician's assistant and senior vice president of Cabarrus Family Medicine. "But if you look at the amount of healthcare waste because information was not available at the right time, I think it will pay for itself over the long haul."

CBJ reported that Carolinas HealthCare System and Presbyterian Healthcare are driving local efforts by electronically linking records at their hospitals and affiliated medical practices. Anyone treating a hospital patient would have access to a full medical history, including medications the patient is taking, as well as insurance and billing information.

About 85 percent of all patient information is kept in physician offices, pharmacies and labs, according to Holt Anderson, executive director and president of the N.C. Healthcare Information and Communications Alliance. "Part of the inefficiencies and cost of healthcare is paper records. Each physician's office does its own thing and each hospital does its own thing."

Maintaining electronic records is also one of the measures of quality established by pay-for-performance initiatives such as the Bridges to Excellence program. Presbyterian and Carolinas HealthCare are participating in the initiative, which is overseen by the Charlotte Health Care Collaborative, according to the CBJ.

The two hospital systems will not immediately link to one another or to other practices.

Presbyterian will implement the next phase of its EHRs program next year, and it will continue for several years, said Stephen Wallenhaupt, MD, executive vice president and chief medical officer of Presbyterian Healthcare.

"It's very important for us and all our caregivers to have access to the fullest complement of information available," Wallenhaupt said. He added that the task is complex since the system must be able to meet the needs of 800 physicians, 1,062 other caregivers and more than 260 affiliated sites—some of which still use paper records. Implementation and training can be challenging and time consuming, he said.

Wallenhaupt said that the different EHR systems for each hospital department must become interoperable. "All of us in healthcare, as well as other individuals, are struggling to reach a standard that allows us a level of interoperability.”