Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius released an important report last week. The report finds that implementing health information technologies, like electronic health records, can help improve health care quality in rural areas. Specifically, the report examines the Columbia Basin Health Association (CBHA) in Othello, Washington, the technologies they implemented, and the resulting improvements in healthcare.

According to Secretary Sebelius, the CBHA is just one example of how “health information technology and electronic health records (EHR) have helped ensure patients get better care.” She goes on to report that technologies like EHRs “can reduce paperwork, make care more efficient, and let doctors spend more time practicing medicine and less time filling out forms.” In addition, many practices are financially better off after implementing an EHR, because the resulting efficiencies can reduce operating costs and allow practices to see more patients.

As a case in point, CBHA used their electronic systems to track diabetic patients. Prior to implementing their EHR systems, only 31% of CBHA’s diabetic patients received their recommended foot and only 37% their eye exams. After implementing their EHR, the numbers rose to 86% and 63%, respectively. In addition, CBHA now ranks in the 95th percentile nationally for total medical and dental productivity.

While implementing EHR systems can benefit any practice, rural areas seem to have the most to gain. Many rural areas fall under federally-classified “Health Professional Shortage Area,” which means there may not be enough physicians to satisfy local demand. EHR systems can help physicians in these shortage areas by allowing them to see more patients per day without an increase in overhead.

However, physicians in rural areas should be careful when selecting an EHR system. Many rural areas lack critical infrastructure that could pose a challenge to implementation. High speed internet, for instance, is still not available in all areas. Similarly, physicians may have trouble finding qualified computer support technicians. Office staff may lack basic computer skills, which can slow down implementations and require more expensive training.

Despite these limitations, rural physicians should continue their EHR search. Instead of purchasing one of the complicated, expensive market-leading systems, physicians should purchase a simple, cost-effective EHR that doesn’t require a full-time internet connection. Simple systems are easier to install, and easier to learn and use, especially for physicians and staff with little computer experience. Last but not least, the HITECH stimulus act offers increased EHR reimbursement payments for physicians in rural “Health Professional Shortage Areas.”

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Ryan Ricks

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