MARQUETTE - A new regional health information exchange could lower the administrative costs of health care, while making the complicated medical world a bit easier to maneuver for patients.
The electronic Upper Peninsula Health Information Exchange will be an electronic repository for U.P. patient information. Under the system, health records will be born digital at the time a patient receives treatment. In the future, that information will be accessible at other medical centers, should a patient move or need to seek specialized treatment away from home.
"Right now, if I go from Marquette to Grand Rapids for something, I'll probably have to carry all my records, or copies of all my records," said Dennis Smith, the executive director of the U.P. Health Care Network, and president and CEO of the U.P. Health Plan. "Depending on how ill I am, that could be a foot or two thick. We need to be able to capture the data electronically and be able to send that to people."
IT administrative assistant Nadine Hatch uses a computer in the main offices of the U.P. Health Plan. The aim of a new regional health information exchange is to make it easier for patients to move between care providers, while lowering associated administrative costs. (Journal photo by Matt Keiser)
The regional exchange is a project of the U.P. Health Care Network, a grouping of regional hospitals. The network shares staff with the U.P. Health Plan.
Smith said the idea for regional health exchanges has been around for years and sprang from an idea to create a similar national exchange.
Under the current form of the plan, the UPHIE, as well as a handful of other regional exchanges across Michigan, will link up to a statewide exchange based in Lansing. That exchange will then link up to a national exchange, as will systems from other states.
As the exchange goes live, there are four regional hospitals on board, but the long-term goal is for the UPHIE to connect every generator of medical records in the U.P - from hospitals and clinics to health departments and the offices of social workers.
"Eventually, the way the federal government views it, every generator of health care information will be on an exchange somewhere," Smith said.
According to Smith, there are two main reasons to create such extensive electronic exchanges: they will make patients' lives simpler and they will save money. The goal is not to cut jobs, but to eliminate busy work.
"When you're on a 1- or 2-percent margin like a lot of these not-for-profit hospitals are, every nickel you can save - both today and in the future - makes a difference," Smith said. "This will help that. Eventually, it will eliminate a lot of space that's used for record keeping. It will eliminate all that paper that gets generated. It will eliminate all the cost of moving stuff around."
Four of the 15 U.P. hospitals should be operating on the exchange by the start of 2013, and roughly six more will join during the following year. The goal is to have every office that generates medical records on board by the end of 2014.
Currently Sault Ste. Marie's War Memorial Hospital is on the exchange; Aspirus Grand View in Ironwood, Aspirus Keweenaw in Laurium and Aspirus Ontonagon should join shortly.
"We're working with several other facilities with their timelines to hopefully get up in the first or second quarter of next year," said Paula Johnson, the director of enterprise business systems for both the U.P. Health Care Network and the U.P. Health Plan.
Johnson and Smith have been working together to get the UPHIE up and running and Johnson said the project fits nicely for many regional health care providers currently working to move to electronie record keeping.
Though people occasionally question the security of digital medical records, Johnson said anyone accessing the system would need security clearance. Anything that happened on the exchange would also be governed by the strict privacy rules of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
She said most patients are likely acquainted with the HIPAA form that must be signed before electronic medical records are created and shared, but said people can still choose to opt out of the practice.
If someone chooses not to sign the release, their medical records must still be handled manually and either faxed or transported by hand to other offices if necessary.
The creation of health exchanges has been funded in part by federal money, which was handed out to states. Michigan then gave grants to establish regional exchanges, including $275,000 for the UPHIE.
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.