SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Dr. Barbara Slager recently received a panicked telephone call from one of her patients.
The pregnant woman had undergone an ultrasound at a Portland clinic that showed that her baby wasn’t growing normally.
The frantic patient called Slager, her obstetrician at Coastal Women’s Healthcare in Scarborough, who immediately called up the woman’s electronic medical record on a computer.
After verifying herself as a clinician through a statewide health information exchange called HealthInfoNet, Slager was able to view the ultrasound results and put the finding about the baby’s growth in perspective.
Overall, the ultrasound results were positive, she assured the woman over the phone.
“Ordinarily I would have had to call the office and say, ‘Can you send that report over? The patient’s hysterical on the phone,’” Slager said.
Coastal Women’s Healthcare, an independent gynecologic and obstetric practice, has converted all of its 10,000 patients to electronic health records. The practice was honored Thursday by federal officials for its leadership in transitioning from paper to electronic records and for meeting federal criteria for “meaningful use” of digital records.
Andrew Finnegan, an official with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Boston, said the practice’s embrace of health information technology will reduce costs and improve patients’ health.
“You’re doing a great job saving us money,” he quipped.
Electronic health records have been hailed as a way to improve health care by putting patient histories at clinicians’ fingertips, as well as allowing doctors to track when patients are due for preventive care and help them to better coordinate treatment for people with chronic illnesses.
Their adoption has been spurred by federal stimulus funds that provide incentive to health care providers — many who worry about the hassle and expense of converting — to wean themselves off paper. Over the next decade, the federal government will dole out $27 billion to hospitals, doctors and other providers that show they’re committed to using electronic records.
At Coastal Women’s Healthcare, adopting digital records cost the practice about half a million dollars, Slager said. That was partially offset by $110,000 in incentive payments the practice has received this year, she said.
Nationally, non-primary care specialists like those at Coastal Women’s Healthcare have lagged in adopting electronic health records. By 2011, more than half of all office-based physicians were using digital records, but only about a third had systems with basic features, such as the ability to view lab results and manage computerized prescription orders, according to a study published in the May issue of the journal Health Affairs.
Three years ago, about 50 percent of Maine hospitals and 40 percent of physician practices in the state had adopted electronic medical records, said Shaun Alfreds, chief operating officer of HealthInfoNet.
“Anecdotally, I’d say we’re closer to 75 percent or more adoption [today],” he said. “All of our hospitals, all 39 hospitals, either are currently on a certified EMR or in the process of implementing.”
Physician practices are proceeding at about the same pace, Alfreds said.
“There are still some small practices, especially in rural Maine, that are not affiliated with a health care system or a community-based health care group … that I think are still struggling a bit, and it’s mostly due to financial issues,” he said.
Some research has pointed to potential pitfalls of electronic health records. A November study by the Institutes of Medicine found that well-implemented health information technology can improve patient safety, while poorly designed systems can create new hazards.
Medication dosing errors, failure to detect fatal illnesses and treatment delays because of glitches or loss of data have led to several reported patient deaths and injuries nationally, the panel of researchers found.
The panel recommended requiring vendors to report such incidents to a national database and more oversight by the public and private sectors.