Medical records to be shared electronically as part of greater Brockton project
Starting next month, hundreds of thousands of local residents will be asked to allow their medical information to be shared electronically between doctors.
It's the next phase in a $50 million project, being piloted in greater Brockton and two other communities, to use computers for storing patient records and exchanging medical data.
Backers believe these measures would improve patient care and help fix many of the medical industry's problems — rising costs, errors, patient aggravation.
“I bet it's going to be one of those things where we say, 'What did we ever do before this?'” said Dr. Paul Pettinato, a Bridgewater primary care physician and project organizer.
The pilot program is funded by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, and is being touted as the first of its kind in the country.
Brockton, Newburyport and North Adams are the three communities taking part. If the program meets its goals, backers hope it will be copied around the state and the nation.
Brockton was chosen as the project's model for a diverse, densely populated urban center.
Along with both of the city's hospitals, about 300 doctors in the area are participating. Most of the doctors have already converted their practices to an electronic medical record system.
But their patients can choose whether to go along with the next phase — allowing key parts of that medical record to be viewable by other doctors on the network.
Shared information might include a patient's medical conditions, allergies, lab results and prescriptions.
Having quick access to this information could be lifesaving in some cases, Rudolph said. An emergency room doctor, for instance, could make better decisions when caring for an unconscious patient if medical data was instantly available, she said.
Backers say the project could have a range of other benefits for patients as well, including:
Reduction in medical and prescription errors. Computerized records make it easier for a doctor to get the full picture of a patient's history, and less likely to make a mistake Less work for patients. They will no longer need to repeat their medical histories to every doctor, and won't be responsible for transporting physician referrals, which would be done electronically Reduction in unnecessary medical tests. Patients won't have to repeat tests, such as lab work, because doctors will be able to track the test results on the computer
“We believe this is the best and right way to change healthcare,” said Lynda Rudolph, an executive with the Massachusetts eHealth Collaborative, the organization running the project. “Something needs to be done to change the paradigm.”
Still, the pilot program is an experiment, and part of its purpose is to determine whether these benefits actually occur, Rudolph said.
To accomplish this, the organization hopes most patients will agree to take part. That means signing a consent form allowing their information to be shared with authorized medical personnel.
“We're being very, very cautious about patient privacy and confidentiality,” Rudolph said.
Medical personnel will only get access to the information after completing an intensive training process, and the data will be available only on a “need to know” basis, Rudolph said.
A patient's entire medical record will not be viewable, she noted.
In mid-January, the eHealth Collaborative will mail out consent forms and project brochures to 175,000 area residents, according to Rudolph, who is overseeing the Brockton portion of the pilot.
The residents are patients of four major participating doctors' groups: the Brockton Physician Hospital Organization, which is affiliated with Signature Healthcare Brockton Hospital; the Independent Physician Association, which is affiliated with Caritas Good Samaritan Medical Center; Bridgewater Goddard Park Medical Associates; and the Brockton Neighborhood Health Center.
Other participating doctors will be responsible for providing information and consent forms to their own patients, Rudolph said.
The goal is to begin allowing medical personnel to share patient information by late February or early March. The data will be transmitted over a secure Internet connection, Rudolph said.
Patients can choose which doctors they want to be able to see their information; for instance, a patient may permit a specialist to view the data, but might not grant the access to local hospitals, according to Rudolph.
Patients may also withdraw their permission at any time, she said.
Local doctors aren't at the stage of sharing information over the network, but Dr. Pettinato said his practice is already seeing major changes just through using the electronic medical record program.
“The whole office is different. There's no charts anymore,” he said.
He says he has become used to working completely off a laptop — every doctor now has one — but it was a bit of a “culture shock” for some doctors at first.
From what he has seen so far, though, Pettinato believes it works.
“Locally, it's going to be such an advantage for patients in the Brockton system, compared to other places around here,” he said.
Practices will have the option of continuing with the electronic system once the pilot ends, Rudolph said.
The trial is slated to end June 30, but the eHealth Collaborative is considering an extension through the end of the year, she said.
Kyle Alspach can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.