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Storm Shows Benefits, Failures Of Technology

Communication systems fail, while electronic records and logistics software hold up

A good argument for why health-care providers should adopt electronic medical-record systems can be found in the tens of thousands, if not millions, of pages of paper files and charts that were destroyed in doctors' offices, clinics, and hospitals across the Gulf Coast states because of Hurricane Katrina.

Many of those paper records will be all but impossible to replace. Without access to this information, peopled wounded or sickened by Katrina need to depend on their memories--if they're conscious--or on their family's knowledge of their medical history, drug allergies, and other potentially important details before treatment.

It's estimated that less than 20% of hospitals in the United States, and even fewer doctors' practices, have adopted electronic medical-records systems. Kindred Hospital New Orleans is one of those few. The 54 patients who were evacuated from the long-term, acute-care hospital a few days after the hurricane--with protection from military guards because of reports of looters and snipers--were able to have their digitized records electronically sent to the other Kindred facilities in Houston and Baton Rouge where the patients were transferred. For the few patients airlifted to non-Kindred hospitals, Kindred was able to print out and overnight hard copies of digital records, says Rick Chapman, executive VP, chief administrative officer, and CIO at Kindred Healthcare Inc.

Meanwhile, in Houston, the Harris County Hospital District set up a 130,000-square-foot clinic at the Astrodome, including 80 computer terminals to register storm evacuees and create new electronic medical records, says Tim Tindle, CIO of the district, which operates the county's public hospitals and community health-care centers. As of Sept. 9, the district had created records for some 8,000 people.

Field clinicians are using networked, mobile-imaging equipment provided by Siemens Medical Solutions to perform X-rays, ultrasounds, CT scans, and other tests at the Astrodome so that on-site and off-site radiologists at Houston hospitals can provide diagnoses electronically.

"We're pleased with how this is working out," says Dr. Michel Mawad, chairman of the radiology department at Baylor College of Medicine, whose doctors are providing care for Astrodome patients. "Once these patients leave [the Astrodome], these electronic records can be pulled up by other doctors for follow-up care."

While Kindred and Harris County Hospital District demonstrate how E-health-record systems can be an important part of a disaster-recovery plan, even Kindred's Chapman acknowledges that many challenges still exist for other providers to make the jump from paper to digital. The biggest obstacles have dollar signs. Says Chapman, "The government needs to create incentives--financial ones--to get more companies doing this."

Photo by Harris County Hospital

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