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Justin Sikes

Justin Sikes is data analyst and grant writer for the Regional Mental Health Center.

With the widespread implementation of electronic health records, medical histories, medication and allergy information and other health information are quickly available to authorized parties. You might not think this is of much value until you consider just how mobile our society is today.

When my friend Ray (not his real name) and his wife recently decided to flee the bitter Northwest Indiana winter for a few weeks and traveled to sunny Florida, they didn't plan on Ray slipping and breaking his leg. They spent the first day of their vacation sitting in an unfamiliar hospital waiting for unknown doctors and nurses to gather Ray's medical information, while Ray complained endlessly about irony.

But after a short wait, Ray was being examined by a competent nurse. He was stunned. This hospital's staff seemed to know exactly who he was and exactly what medications he was taking, despite having never seen him before! He questioned the nurse about his privacy concerns. Could anyone with a computer access his records? No. A number of safeguards have been built into the software.

Ray can thank the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, sometimes called the Stimulus Act. This program has provided funding for the "meaningful use" of electronic health records. With the new focus on health information exchanges, hospitals and clinics that use electronic health records can share digital health data.

Ray's Indiana hospital and the hospital in Florida he happened to visit fortunately had converted from paper records to digitally archived medical information using electronic health record technology. The Florida staff was able to access his Lake County medical history quickly. But if Ray had needed mental health services such as the anxiety medication he takes, he might not have been so fortunate, as the government still tends to treat mental health issues as somewhat secondary to primary care.

Although psychiatrists, nurse practitioners and physician assistants are eligible for ARRA meaningful use funding, mental health clinicians and therapists are not.

Since Regional Mental Health Center provides a full spectrum of mental health services, it qualified to receive ARRA funding last year. Regional collected $273,000 in 2011, making software and hardware upgrades at the Strawhun Center in Merrillville and Stark Center in East Chicago. Regional expects to receive $819,000 in program incentives over the program's six-year period.

When Ray returns to Indiana, he plans to contact his congressman to urge that mental health providers be eligible for the same kinds of incentive funds as physical health providers. If you agree, please consider contacting your congressman.

Justin Sikes is a data analyst and grant writer at the Regional Mental Health Center. The opinions are the writer's.