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Virtual Veterans

At the South Texas Veterans Healthcare System, doctors and nurses use a client-server system that links workstations and PCs and provides a graphical interface for reading and entering patients’ data. Each patient record includes such statistics as height, weight, and blood pressure; medical conditions (for example, diabetes); medications the patient is taking; and lab test results. Access to information throughout the VA’s nationwide network of hospitals and clinics is one of the biggest benefits to clinicians, says Vikie Schwartz, assistant chief of the South Texas system’s office of information technology in San Antonio. “We have a clinic in McAllen, which is about five hours away. They can view the same chart that we can view here, at the same time,” she says. If a patient from San Diego had a medical emergency while visiting San Antonio, the records from California would be accessible. Having lists of medications and test results so readily available allows doctors to avoid unnecessarily repeating tests or duplicating prescriptions, saving time and money.

The technology’s benefits go beyond convenience for the medical staff: patients get better care. Take the case of a 70-year-old man who came to the Audie L. Murphy Memorial Veterans Hospital in San Antonio early last December. The triage doctor diagnosed his bad cough as pneumonia and admitted the man to the hospital. Using a PC on the ward to log into the network, the resident on duty was able to check the patient’s medical history, including information from his last visit with a primary care doctor.

After assessing the information, the resident typed in instructions for the man’s care using the computerized order-entry system: prescriptions for intravenous Levaquin (an antibiotic) and an inhaled bronchodilator, orders for a chest x-ray and blood tests and dietary instructions. The system helps decrease errors and holdups in the delivery of medication and fulfillment of tests. “You make sure that the order is complete,” says Schwartz. “And there’s no delay in carting a piece of paper around.” Once the lab results were ready, the doctor could have viewed them from any computer in the hospital. “People who get in and start to use the system begin to realize the power of what they have,” says Gary Christopherson, who was formerly chief information officer of the Veterans Health Administration and is now senior advisor to the undersecretary for health in the VA.

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