How Beacon Community programs can give EHRs a push

Just over a year ago, the Department of Health and Human Services released the names of the names of the first 15 communities (with two more added later) across the country--from Maine to Hawaii--that would serve as models for the broad use of healthcare information technology. This was the start of the Beacon Community program.

Earlier this week, representatives came together in Washington at an event hosted by the Brookings Institution's Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT to show how they have been making progress in using electronic health records (EHR) systems and health IT to improve the health within their communities.

"It's not about the technology: It's about what we're going to do with the technology. And, I think that is one lesson that the Beacon Communities truly exemplify," said National Health IT Coordinator Farzad Mostashari, MD.

In San Diego, they found that hospitals linking with Department of Defense and Veterans Administration healthcare facilities has been valuable. "We do know that many patients move around in particular [to multiple facilities]--despite having a large DoD hospital. Non-DoD institutions had something like 15,000 patient visits in a year's time, said Ted Chan, MD, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego and principal investigator for the San Diego Beacon project.

"Using data to show that patients actually move around and that they get care from different facilities and at different sites has really convinced competing organizations to work together on this issue" of linking together, Chan said.

In a seven-county area of western Colorado, primary care practices--tackling issues such as asthma and diabetes--are "actually starting to be hungry for data--they're starting to learn to how to use data to improve their outcomes," said Julie Schilz, who heads the Colorado Beacon Consortium.

They have begun to look for ways to get information quicker into the EHRs--such as by using newer fax server technologies to get the data incorporated into the records (with much less paper). "It's actually helped their bottom line," she said.

The Beacon communities started out representing separate groups with separate objectives in their communities--in a way playing their own songs, Mostashari said. But as they continue to learn, they are coming together and learning together.

Whether they are figuratively a little trio or a jazz band, the goal is to "play beautiful music together," he said. "We have to start putting together each group doing its thing--but swinging with everybody else."

And hopefully in a key that puts new attention on EHRs.- Janice