Value of EHRs becomes clearer

November 1, 2008

Healthcare learned lessons about access to patient data during past natural disasters and now are putting those lessons to work during this year's hurricane season

ONE LESSON THAT HEALTHCARE learned from hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 was that paper medical records, and those on disks and servers, are incredibly vulnerable. Now, in light of hurricanes Gustav and Ike, the value of electronic health records (EHRs), accessible from remote locations, has become crystal clear.

In fact, one health system was able to return to practice without missing a beat just one day after Hurricane Gustav, thanks to its EHR. Results like this reinforce the value of EHRs and lessons learned from previous disasters.

"We've also learned that during emergency situations, health plans are a good source of high-level patient-centric information, as medical records from providers may not be readily accessible," says Ob Soonthornsima, senior vice president and chief information officer at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana (BCBSLA) in Baton Rouge. "Since the 2005 hurricanes, payer-based health records, which had been theorized for years, have emerged as a capability that health plans look to implement more broadly."

"EHRs are here and here to stay," says Don McLeod, spokesman for CMS. "Over time, they represent great promise to improve health, transform the healthcare system and increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the business operations associated with the delivery of healthcare."

Following the devastating beginning of this year's hurricane season, consumers began to ask for and obtain health records from their plans. Consumer ownership and responsibility should be promoted, as part of managing one's health and that of one's family-and not just for disaster preparedness, according to Soonthornsima.

TEXAS COAST

Humana launched the CareProfile EHR throughout the state of Texas in preparation for hurricane season earlier this year. During Gustav and Ike, electronic information was available for Texas physicians and providers who had access to the Internet.

Delivered through Availity, CareProfile is currently sourced by claims-based information from multiple health plans. Humana provides information for the previous 18 months, including prescription history, diagnoses and associated procedures, lab tests performed, radiology tests, immunizations, physician office visits and hospitalizations.

RAISE PUBLIC AWARENESS

Soonthornsima believes that public awareness is needed, especially in areas such as the Gulf Coast, the earthquake-prone areas of the California and other vulnerable regions.

"BCBSLA has learned how important it is to work in cooperation with the media to get information out to its customers statewide," he says. "Since those storms, we've developed even stronger media relationships."

Several days before Hurricane Gustav reached the Gulf of Mexico, when it was just starting to threaten Louisiana, BCBSLA took several measures to remind all Louisiana residents to safeguard their medical records and personal health information. Well in advance of Gustav's landfall, the plan distributed a press release with details about its hurricane Web site, its free preparedness brochure and its personal health record (PHR) service.

In addition, its payer-based health record (Blue Health Record) and personal health record tool have been promoted near the beginning of each hurricane season since their inception.

"We issue press releases encouraging the public to safeguard their health information and remind our customers of the PHR service available to them," Soonthornsima says.

BCBSLA's brochure, "Be Safe. Be Prepared." is unique in that it gives members tips on preparing for a natural disaster, with an emphasis on collecting and safeguarding health information, but it also can be downloaded for free by anyone-including non-members.

In addition, BCBSLA promotes its PHR tool through public service announcements when there is a storm approaching the area.

Continuity of care, particularly for those who have chronic care needs, is critical for disaster victims, Soonthornsima says.

"Readily-available health records, such as payer-based health records, fill a significant information gap in facilitating case management when patients are displaced," he says.