FAIRBANKS — The ability to exchange health information securely is the foundation of efforts to improve health care quality, safety and efficiency in the United States. This winter, residents of Fairbanks and Interior Alaska will be the first in the 49th state to benefit from the deployment of a new statewide health information system — the health information exchange. Health information exchange, or HIE, is the term used to describe the actual electronic sharing of health-related information among organizations.
Nationally, electronic health information exchange has resulted in the following:
• Faster and more effective emergency treatment
• Greater patient satisfaction
• Improved public health disease reporting
• Avoidance of duplicate testing
• Avoidance of negative drug interactions
• Avoidance of allergic reactions
In 2010, the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services contracted with the Alaska eHealth Network, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, to deploy and operate a private, secure health information exchange for Alaska. It is one of nearly 200 HIEs being developed nationwide, and its initial participants are set to include Fairbanks-based medical care providers, including Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, Tanana Valley Clinic and Tanana Chiefs Conference.
Alaskans are adventurous, and adventures can sometimes lead to unexpected injuries or other emergencies miles away from home and their primary health care provider. In a situation when urgent care is critical, providers who use the HIE can access a patient’s medical records electronically to provide safer, more effective treatment. Whether patients are referred across town or to tertiary medical care facilities in Anchorage or the Pacific Northwest, their medical information will be immediately available to the referral provider via a secure, encrypted, and standardized process of data exchange across state, regional and national systems.
In the future, all Alaska medical providers — whether they are private, tribal, state or federal — are expected to participate in the HIE. These include hospitals and nursing homes, private physician offices, community health centers, laboratories, imaging centers and pharmacies that adopt electronic health record systems.
While all Alaskans are eligible under state law to participate, individual patients have the right to opt out of participation in the health information exchange at their discretion.
Nationally, around 2 percent of patients elect not to participate. For most, the benefits of having their health information available to providers electronically substantially outweigh the potential risk of breach of confidentiality. Patients will have the opportunity to opt out of HIE participation when they visit their local medical providers.
Alaska’s health information exchange is expected to cost approximately $2 million annually to sustain, with operating costs to be supported by participating medical providers and health insurers who will benefit from better patient outcomes and reduced costs. In 2009, authorizing legislation was unanimously approved by the Alaska Legislature. Approximately $7 million in federal stimulus funding and state appropriations are financing the deployment of the exchange and its initial operations.
For more information about health information exchange and electronic health records, visit the Alaska eHealth Network website at www.ak-ehealth.org.
Paul Sherry is president of the board of directors of the non-profit Alaska eHealth Network.