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A new study has found that a medical-information exchange system that is considered a model for health-care reform efforts saved significant amounts of money and led to better care for patients—including a woman who probably would have died without the system.

The woman was bleeding from her uterus when she came to the emergency room of Saint Francis Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, in 2009. If her medical records had been unavailable, doctors probably would have ordered an ultrasound, incurring some delay in treatment. But because of the city’s digital information-sharing program—a rarity among U.S. hospitals with different owners—the doctors learned that an ultrasound done days earlier at another facility had detected that the woman had an ectopic pregnancy, in which the embryo becomes implanted outside the uterus. (It’s not clear whether the first institution had failed to follow up or whether the patient refused treatment there.)

This knowledge prompted the Saint Francis doctors to rush the woman into surgery. Her blood pressure dropped to zero on the operating table, putting her in danger of imminent cardiac arrest and death. But she survived, and one of the doctors later wrote in an e-mail to a colleague at Vanderbilt University, where the information-sharing network was originally developed: “Ehealth saved a life tonight.” The study, led by Mark Frisse, a physician and professor of biomedical informatics at Vanderbilt, was published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.

The larger point of the study was to reveal the results of sharing patient data electronically between 12 hospital emergency rooms in the Memphis area. The researchers found that the participating hospitals reduced health-care costs by $2 million over 13 months, largely because doctors avoided needless admissions, CT scans, and other tests after getting insights from the patients’ medical histories. In other hospitals, emergency doctors often fly blind and overtreat or overtest incoming patients.

Earlier studies have pointed to savings that came from adding IT to other elements of the health-care system, such as reducing clerical work through various kinds of software that aid the billing process or prescription-writing. But this was the first to “document rigorously” the cost reductions in patient care, says John Halamka, chief information officer at Harvard Medical School and a leading advocate for health IT networks. The research indicates that the savings for hospitals around the United States could be in the billions of dollars and lead to better medical outcomes, Halamka adds.

The Vanderbilt study comes amid a rapid ramp-up in the use of electronic medical records by U.S. doctors and hospitals, prodded by the incentives in the 2009 stimulus act. In the past three years, the adoption of electronic medical records by U.S. doctors has roughly doubled to around 30 percent. On top of that, 80 percent of hospitals are also beefing up their electronic health records.

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Credit: Kevin B. Johnson

Tagged: Computing, Biomedicine, data, health, health IT, hospitals

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