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Another Voice: HEALTHeLINK is working, but it needs more people using it

By Anthony J. Billittier

Ten years since it was established through the collaboration of the region’s major hospital systems and health plans, HEALTHeLINK is working to improve the quality of patient care, enhance patient safety and minimize health care costs. While more than 4,000 physicians and other clinicians are participating and about 810,000 Western New Yorkers have consented to share their health information through the information exchange, more work remains.

Physician access to patient data through HEALTHeLINK continues to increase. However, it’s not enough for physicians and health care providers to just be signed on as participants; they need to regularly utilize the clinical information exchange to realize the full value that it offers. When caring for a patient, many physicians are often missing pieces of that patient’s medical information. More specifically, that information is contained in the electronic records of other providers.

For example, as an emergency physician, the majority of patients I treat are new to me. Gaining accurate and reliable information is imperative. The challenge of learning about their past medical history is compounded further if they are unconscious or unable to communicate clearly. Other specialists also care for many patients who are new to them. Even primary care physicians do not always directly receive lab tests and summaries of visits from specialists. HEALTHeLINK is a large part of the solution.

Important clinical information, including radiology reports and actual images, lab results, discharge summaries, medication history and more are available to participating physicians through HEALTHeLINK. With more and more health care organizations and providers contributing patient data, along with an increasing number of patients having consented to have their records accessed, it has become easier to obtain the information.

Last year, Brookings Institution released a report based on a pilot study HEALTHeLINK conducted to examine the impact of clinical information exchange in three local emergency departments. The study showed when HEALTHeLINK is regularly accessed, the number of unnecessary laboratory tests and radiology exams ordered is significantly reduced.

Educating health care workers and changing behavior is a gradual process. But the value of having a more complete medical picture at the point of care can’t be matched. We’ve come a long way making health information technology available in Western New York; and, in fact, we are leaders nationwide. The next step is to urge every physician to ask: “Have we HEALTHeLINKed our patients today?”

 Anthony J. Billittier, M.D., is an emergency physician with UBMD at Erie County Medical Center. He serves on HEALTHeLINK’s board of directors.