The days of wading through stacks of paperwork to log and chart medical records are fading as the health care industry finds its place in the digital world.
On May 11, Franciscan Physicians Hospital in Munster will be the last of the Franciscan Alliance hospitals in the Northern Indiana Region to "go live" with Epic Systems, a widely used electronic medical records software, said Marie Anaya-Santiago, regional director of health information management for Franciscan.
The hospitals started converting to electronic record-keeping in 2006, she said.
"We used to scan in paper documents," she said. "Instead of paper stacks, now we have work queues."
The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, designated funding to modernize the health care system by promoting and expanding the adoption of health information technology, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Aside from offering Medicare and Medicaid incentive payments to hospitals and doctors who use electronic health records, the act authorizes grant programs and contracts that support health information technology adoption.
In the Franciscan hospitals, each patient room has a computer, so documentation takes place there, Anaya-Santiago said.
"The physician has the ability to document on that computer, or there are work stations," she said.
Physicians also have access remotely and can do tasks, such as place orders, remotely, Anaya-Santiago said.
Notices are pinned to bulletin boards around the hospitals, informing people of the conversion.
"That has eased a lot of questions and concerns," Anaya-Santiago said.
If patients are not comfortable with the technology and prefer a paper copy of their records, the hospital can provide that. Or, they can provide records via alternative media, such as a DVD, for tech-savvy patients who request that, she said.
She estimated 99 percent of records are handled electronically.
"On very rare occasions do we have paper documentation," she said. "We still have paper consents."
Once a patient signs a consent form on paper, that is forwarded to the records department for scanning.
Dr. David Ashbach, an internal medicine physician with a specialty in nephrology, sits on the electronic medical record physician steering committee for Methodist Hospitals. He said the switch to electronic records has reduced errors.
"The old records were all handwritten and, for the most part, nobody could read anybody's handwriting," he said. "With the physician entering orders himself, there are far fewer mistakes."
It is not feasible for doctors and specialists to sit down and discuss care for every single patient all the time. The electronic system allows doctors to leave notes on the record, he said.
"The electronic medical record allows me to see what other doctors are thinking," he said.
Ashbach, chair of the quality committee at Methodist, said the transition to electronic records initially was rough for some physicians who were familiar with traditional methods.
"Many were upset and angry about using this electronic medical record, but not one wants to go back," he said.
Methodist has been using some form of electronic medical record keeping since 1989, albeit a more primitive version than today. Now, doctors can log in through Epic from any Internet-equipped computer and view X-rays, fetal ultrasounds, coronary angiograms and more, Ashbach said.
Methodist Hospitals went fully live with Epic in April of 2011.
"It's a major change in health care and, for the most part, it's going to be an improvement," Ashbach said.