In a rare show of collaboration, Augusta hospital leaders have been meeting over the last several months about how to create a system for exchanging electronic health records that could one day allow patients' information to follow them across the area, the state and the country.
Much of it, however, still needs to be worked out, and the millions of dollars involved are attracting all kinds of companies to jump into the market, further complicating things, said Bill Colbert, the vice president for information systems for University Hospital, which is helping to lead the local effort.
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 set aside $19 billion to help health care providers implement secure electronic health records that could pass from provider to provider by 2015, with them having to meet certain criteria in stages.
"This is going to be a huge financial commitment, from the federal government on down," Colbert said.
The Augusta Metro Health Information Exchange met in January with all four major Augusta hospitals: the East Central Health District, Georgia Department of Community Health, Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center and Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center.
A follow-up meeting in June brought in the CEOs of those hospitals plus officials from Walton Rehabilitation and Select Specialty hospitals. Another meeting is planned for early September.
University and some Augusta officials will also be going to an Atlanta-area meeting on Tuesday for a statewide overview. Georgia Community Health has a $13 million grant to present a preliminary state plan due in August, according to Colbert.
With all of the people at the table, there is still a need to bring in other providers, such as physicians and pharmacies, said Jim Davis, CEO of University Health Care System.
"It's not just the hospitals that need to talk to each other," he said. "We have to talk to all of these other folks."
It could help to address a problem Dr. Shannon Stinson faces a couple of times a week in University's Emergency Department -- a patient comes in who is comatose, or is unable to give their medical history and family can't supply it. She remembers one patient who had a CT scan at another hospital a couple of days before showing up at University.
"It took, I think, four hours for me to get the results from that hospital, just to get them to fax it to me," Stinson said. "And it was in the middle of the day. Otherwise, I could have had that patient in and out within 30-45 minutes, as opposed to the five hours they ended up being there."
The biggest hurdle to overcome probably won't be technological -- getting computer systems to talk to each other -- but administrative, Colbert said.
"You do have to create some sort of governance structure around this because this is something that exists outside of each of these institutions or practices," he said. "So we have to kind of agree on how it is that we are going to manage this process," and how to sustain it going forward.
"Whatever we get from the state or federal government is going to be insignificant over time," Colbert said.
While there are vendors offering to handle all of it for various institutions, University and others in Augusta are taking a collaborative approach and proceeding with caution.
"We've got to do it," Colbert said. "But we need to do it the right way."