While hospitals across the country work to transition from old-fashioned paper records to electronic data, some doctors in Aspen have already “gone digital.” Aspen Valley Hospital is in the middle of this conversion, which is part of the Affordable Care Act. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.
Moving from paper medical records to an electronic system can take a toll on hospitals. It requires lots of staff time and potentially a high price tag. NPR reports many cash-strapped small-town hospitals are merging with larger health facilities in order to implement the change.
That’s not the case at Aspen Valley Hospital.
"In the case of Aspen Valley Hospital, we’re much busier than your normal small, rural hospital. Our revenues are probably five or six times bigger than most critical access hospitals," says Terry Collins.
He's Chief Financial Officer at Aspen Valley Hospital. Phase one of moving from paper to electronic records will cost the hospital $1.4 million up-front but, over time, it will save the hospital money. Collins says it’s well worth it.
"You’ve got to have the money to do it, but that’s not the primary consideration. The primary consideration is how do we deliver the best quality health care that we can for our patients and implementing an electronic health record is definitely going to do that."
Already, about 40 doctors at the hospital are using an electronic system to collect data on patients, share them with other health care providers and to measure the quality of health care.
Up next will be the emergency department will make the switch. Aftab Shams is spending much of his time on this. He’s the interim director of I.T. at the hospital.
"It’ll transform the emergency department, totally. So, instead of picking up a sheet of paper when someone comes in and you triage the patient on a sheet of paper, it’ll be electronic. The physicians and clinicians may be using a mobile device," he says.
Right now, doctors read a clipboard that lists where patients are and which rooms are open. It’s a system that can lead to a lack of coordination when the E.R. gets busy. When the digital switch happens, a monitor will replace the clipboard.
"You’re not going to change how the patient gets treated. We’re going to make sure that the information is available out there to the providers in a quicker fashion, and in such a way so that they can treat the patient better, faster and more accurately, so that the patient gets better faster and more accurately," says Shams.
But that efficiency may not be seen right away. And, the costs to maintain security and keep up such a system will be high, especially for rural hospitals. Brock Slabach is Senior Vice President at the National Rural Health Association.
"It’s not uncommon for maintenance costs directly to the vendors to be anywhere from $5000, $10,000, $15,000 per month. That’s a significant operational expense for many rural hospitals to afford."
Already, more than 80 percent of the country’s 2000 rural hospitals have started switching to electronic files. One of those is Delta County Memorial Hospital in Delta. CEO Jason Cleckler says their switch to electronic files cost $4 million dollars and he’s not sure yet whether it was worthwhile.
"I will say that it’s been very difficult for this hospital and, I would venture to say, for other hospitals too, mainly because of the expense," Cleckler says.
The hospital made the switch two years ago to escape penalties handed down from the federal government. Although it’s been difficult, Cleckler says he’s hopeful the sharing of patient information with other medical facilities will eventually prove beneficial.
"I think it will eventually cut down on some medical errors, some of the clerical mistakes, or misreading somebody’s handwriting, that kind of thing. We haven’t fully realized those things quite yet."
Aspen’s system isn’t as far along. The local emergency department will be outfitted with its digital system by the end of the year.