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Wireless Outreach

Electronic medical records help track and treat the homeless.

While many otherwise sophisticated U.S. hospitals have dithered about adopting them, electronic medical records are enhancing health care for a surprising population: the homeless.

Earlier this year, a nonprofit group called Healthcare for the Homeless-Houston installed five wireless access points around the city that enable field-workers, using handheld computers, to view real-time medical records. Rather than lugging paper charts around while doing street outreach, care providers view and update patient records on the spot, using software specially written for personal digital assistants by volunteer David Niemeyer, vice president of technology solutions for Healthlink, a Houston-based health-care consulting firm. The result: easier tracking of difficult-to-find patients and speedier delivery of health care and social services.

The technology has become “a cornerstone of our work,” says David Buck, a family physician at Baylor College of Medicine and president of the organization. What’s more, doctors and nurses can tap into indigent patients’ medical histories and easily update their records when they show up at a clinic or shelter.

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Other cities may soon follow suit. Already, outreach groups in Boston and Indianapolis use electronic medical records. And Buck is making the software freely available to homeless-service agencies in New Orleans and elsewhere. Just don’t look for such sophistication at your local hospital, where doctors are probably still scribbling notes on paper pads.

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