UIHC heads into the age of digital records


UI Hospitals and Clinics officials said they’re preparing to launch the largest phase of their transition from paper to digital records — the final switch will take place in a few weeks.

On May 2, all UIHC departments, the Carver College of Medicine, and Student Health Service will switch to a new $60 million computer system to track medical records.

“It is going to be a tremendous undertaking,” said Lee Carmen, an associate vice president of UI Medical Affairs. “[This] will be the most obvious event to staff on this whole project and it will impact them more than anything else.”

Last week, a report published in the New England Journal of Medicine noted that fewer than 2 percent of hospitals have completely switched from paper to electronic medical records, but a higher percentage have systems for at least one department.

In February, President Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and committed $19 billion to help U.S. hospitals purchase electronic data systems. He wants most hospitals to make the digital dive by 2014.

UIHC officials said their big leap will enhance patient safety, research, and hospital quality. The project, funded by patient revenue, began in January 2007, and officials still have 8,000 more staff members to train.

“There are many areas of medical care that are not highly standardized,” Carmen said. “This system allows us to look to see and identify what is the best care of that clinical condition and program the system to lead the clinicians in that direction.”

Traditionally, UIHC doctors filled out paper charts to order prescription drugs, any X-rays or scans, and even a hospital room for surgical procedures. Computer use at the UIHC began in the 1970s, but it has remained basic.

The new computer system will make the ordering process easier — physicians and nurses can fill out an order on the computer, and many of the procedures will be done automatically.

The system will also make it easier for prescription medicine to be ordered online, alert physicians when prescribing doses to patients, and provide background information and links to learn more about different ways of treating clients.

Across the state, many hospitals are trying to replace their current paper charts with an electronic system, but officials said it’s too costly — some projects can cost up to $200 million.

“Everyone is working on it at some degree,” said Scott McIntyre, communications director for the Iowa Hospital Association. “It’s a pretty tough project to take on, especially with the current economic environment.”

But while some hospitals purchase different computer programs for different departments, UIHC differs because officials are buying one integrated system for the entire health-care sector.

“It is very important to us to have a single system,” Carmen said. “When you have different systems, it’s inevitable that some information is lost.”

The new system will also allow UIHC officials to begin using a web portal this summer, permitting patients and physicians to track medical records, request refill prescriptions, and download health forms for children. Doctors will also be able to check on their patients from anywhere in the world and access their conditions through the site. Referring physicians can follow their patients’ care at UIHC, making it easier for them to continue treating their clients.

“I may have patients that I’m waiting for test results and pathology reports,” said surgeon Doug Van Daele, who is also working on implementing the new system. “I can be at a medical conference but still provide care and call patients with results.”

Officials said the transition will be difficult for many physicians, nurses, and staff members who aren’t familiar or comfortable working with the new computer system. Although officials said they expect it will take a year for UIHC staff to adjust to the new system, they believe it will have a lasting impact.

“The first few weeks a lot of time will be devoted to fixing problems,” Carmen said. “But there’s significant research that shows these types of alerting systems really enhance patient safety.”

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