ILWACO — Ocean Beach Hospital and Medical Clinics are using a new “electronic health records” (EHR) system that promises to provide easier, faster access to important medical information for both patients and providers.

Starting on Oct. 21, OBH staff officially began using the Providence healthcare system’s customized version of a software program called “Epic” to create and maintain patient medical records. The new program, which cost OBH about $2.2 million, replaces a different electronic records system that the hospital first began using in 2015, in response to a federal mandate.

“This is just a game-changer in our community, with respect to improving quality and access to care. That’s really the driver for this,” CEO Larry Cohen said on Oct. 24.

Until just a few years ago, many healthcare providers still kept patient records in paper files. It was cheap and easy, but had limitations. Records got lost, and doctors sometimes had to make critical patient care decisions without knowing a patient’s detailed medical history.

Starting around 2009, the federal government began pushing hospitals to switch to electronic systems, saying they would result in more personalized patient care, fewer errors and better medical decisions. OBH had to meet a deadline for adopting an electronic records program to continue receiving federal funds that make up a major part of its budget, Cohen said, but at the time, there were no affordable programs that met the needs of both small hospitals and clinics.

Ultimately, OBH leaders chose the best of the options within their budget: an outpatient program for the clinics called “Health Gen,” and an inpatient program for the hospital called “Health Land.”

Numerous studies have shown the benefits of switching to electronic systems, including fewer medication errors and lower mortality rates among chronically ill patients. However, after the first programs went live, it quickly became clear to OBH staff that to receive any real benefit, the hospital and clinic needed an integrated system, Cohen said. About a year ago, OBH leaders began the process of switching to Epic.

Epic should do a better job of serving the many patients who use both the clinic and the hospital, Cohen said. Now, when a clinic patient goes across the parking lot to get lab tests or x-rays at the hospital, their doctor’s orders will already be waiting. Additionally, patients will no longer have to register separately at each facility.

“It’s more seamless for the patient,” Cohen said.

Now, providers at Ocean Beach and Providence facilities will have immediate access to the same up-to-date, comprehensive medical records, Cohen said. That is helpful because many local people go to Providence facilities to see specialists or receive advanced care.

Additionally, Ocean Beach staff will be able to see some important medical records, such as allergy and medication lists from other regional healthcare providers that use Providence’s version of Epic. These include the Family Health Center in Klipsan Beach, The Vancouver Clinic, and PeaceHealth, Legacy Kaiser and Kaiser facilities, according to an OBH press release. In all, Epic will connect records from 34 hospitals and 475 clinics, from Montana to California.

Providence provides its version of Epic through a division called “Community Connect,” that specializes in meeting the administrative needs of small healthcare facilities like Ocean Beach. The move to adopt their records system does not signal a deepening relationship or potential merger with Providence, Cogen said — it just makes good sense for OBH, according to Cohen.

“It’s just a way that Providence is supporting communities to better link caregivers together,” he explained. He noted that numerous other independent hospitals in the Northwest have also recently adopted the program.

The Epic contract give OBH access to two other programs designed to improve efficiency and communication. Lawson helps administrative staff with human resources, billing and supply chain-related tasks. A secure, online system called the “My Chart patient portal” will make it possible for patients to easily request appointments, view test results and communicate with their providers, Cohen said

My Chart is active now, but like Epic, it will take time to get up to full speed, Cohen said, because the programs will only integrate records created after the system went live.

“The old systems are still alive and well in the background. They provide historical information,” Cohen said. “We are actually working on archiving them into a whole new database that will merge that information together.” The database should be complete by late spring, 2018, he said.

Cohen acknowledged that the switch to Epic was an ambitious, time-consuming project. But overall, he thinks the switch to the new system is going “really, really well.”

Hospital staff “… are still kind of in shock over a big change,” Cohen said, “but the public will see a significant benefit from integrated access to their own medical records through MyChart.”

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