It's said that tragedy often brings adversaries together, and that adage certainly rings true for many players in the healthcare industry who have pulled together quickly to assist victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Although the health-care industry has long been a stubborn laggard in embracing IT and agreeing on standards to share patient data, dozens of health players--including private sector competitors, government agencies, and national organizations--have collaborated to create a new data network that facilitates secure web access to evacuees' prescription drug history information by authorized doctors and pharmacists nationwide.
The new services, Katrinahealth.org, aim to provide doctors and pharmacies who are treating relocated evacuees with drug information, including known allergies and lists of prescription medications and doses from the last 90 days, that allows them to safely refill and write new prescriptions for those patients.
It's estimated that at least 40% of the 1 million Katrina evacuees were taking prescription medications prior to the disaster, says Dr. Carol Diamond, Managing Director of the Healthcare Program at the Markle Foundation, one of the non-profit industry organizations contributing resources to the Katrinahealth.org effort.
"Many of [their medical] records have been literally washed away," she said during a teleconference to unveil KatrinaHealth.org. The new network is a big step in starting to rebuild some of that information, says Dr. J. Edward Hill, MD, President of the American Medical Association, which is providing physician credentialing and authentication services for the effort.
There are no plans right now to expand this project to include other health information, like lab or other medical data, says Dr. David Brailer, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and whose office spearheaded the KatrinaHealth.org effort. Brailer is the federal czar put in charge about two years ago to help the nation meet President Bush's goal for most Americans to have electronic health records by 2014.
However, with the latest storm, Hurricane Rita, expected to hit landfall in the Gulf region, including Texas, over the weekend, discussions are underway with health and disaster planning officials in those states about how the new network might help there too, Brailer says. Also, Brailer says the federal government and health care sector will later examine what worked and didn't work with Katrinahealth.org, so that those lessons can be applied in future crises as well as in ongoing health IT efforts in the industry.
Among those industry players providing data for the service are pharmacy benefit management companies and retail pharmacy chains, as well as government bodies, like the VA and Medicaid. Key healthcare technology providers providing the "backbone" technology for the services include SureScripts, RxHub, and Gold Standard.
KatrinaHealth.org was piloted over the last two weeks by doctors treating evacuees at 12 shelters, but now the service can be accessed by any authorized doctor treating those patients in any state, as well as by pharmacists in 25,000 pharmacies, which is about 50% of the national pharmacies.
Officials acknowledge that the KatrinaHealth.org online service does have its constraints. For instance, because of credentialing and authentication limitations, hospital and nursing home pharmacists cannot access the network without an authorized doctor present. Plus, information about drugs, like chemotherapy, that patients received in in-patient settings, like hospitals, are not accessible via the network.
SureScipts CEO Kevin Kevin Hutchinson says the urgency of Katrina's aftermath helped propel health industry and government leaders and players to abandon the more usual "analysis" and bureaucratic practices that often prohibits health IT progress from occurring so quickly. Also, "lots of long days by lots of people made this effort possible."
However, Hutchinson admits that while Katrinahealth.org was launched quickly, "it's not scalable" as a more permanent, nationwide service.