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2003 Press Releases

'Electronic medical records' offers more speed and accuracy in treatment - A revolution in records at MMC's Family Practice Center

(July 28, 2003) — Maine Medical Center's Family Practice Center patients may not realize it, but there's a revolution taking place in their treatment.

Since July 1, the staff at the Family Practice Center's Portland and Falmouth sites have been keeping track of patient information using an "electronic medical record" system, a computerized database that will eventually replace the paper records and charts that have traditionally lined walls of medical offices.

The computerized system, known as EMR for short, promises big benefits for patients. No longer will charts and files have to be retrieved and carried from room to room. Patient information is now quickly accessible from computers in every Family Practice Center exam room and nursing station, as well as at Maine Medical Center. Doctors are even able to check records from their homes.

This instant access to information will reduce delays and speed prescription refills. More significantly, it will improve safety by improving accuracy and eliminating problems with illegible handwriting, since information is entered by keyboard. It will even alert the medical staff to potential medication allergies.

"Eventually everyone is going to do this," says Jeffrey J. Aalberg, MD, Medical Director of the Portland and Falmouth Family Practice Center sites. The introduction of EMR "is a huge thing for the medical community. It's a whole new way of doing things."

Nationwide only 12 to 15 percent of medical practices use such systems, Dr. Aalberg says.

In September, the system will be extended to the Greater Portland Medical Group practice in Westbrook and its 8,000 patients, and Dr. Aalberg says funding is being sought to expand it to four more MMC sites.

Using computers to streamline and improve record-keeping may sound straightforward, but implementing such a system in a hectic medical practice was far from easy, says Dr. Aalberg. "We had a very aggressive schedule for it," he says.

Information about the Family Practice Center's 17,000 patients had to be moved into the system, and that meant staff members had to work long hours to "pre-load" data from files and charts before the system went on-line in July. "The volume of information was incredible," Dr. Aalberg says. "Our people worked a lot of extra time to look at each chart and get it into the computer." In all, the pre-loading process took more than six months.

The system required new ways of managing the practice's workflow —the ways in which patient information is retrieved, entered and managed. That required the formation of committees to create new workflow processes.

And, of course, everyone had to learn how to use EMR. Formal training was developed that involved the Family Practice Center and Greater Portland Medical Group staffs, MMC's Information Services personnel, and Practice Partners, which brought its management services and billing expertise to the project and even hired a full-time implementation specialist.

For the physicians, the new system meant a change in work style. Where they once jotted notes on paper and dictated comments, EMR allows them to enter information about patients directly into the computer by clicking through a "template" of information fields.

"The impact on us is that we're learning a whole new language, and a whole new way of doing things," says Dr. Aalberg. That requires patience on the part of everyone—the 14 faculty members in the Family Practice residency program, the 21 resident physicians, the nurses and the patients.

Despite the change in methods, "most patients do very well" with the new system, Dr. Aalberg says. Some have asked about the confidentiality of their medical information and whether others might somehow be able to gain access to it via computer. Dr. Aalberg assures them that the electronic database is safe - protected by three passcodes and viewable only by authorized personnel.

The system provides tremendous advantages that will improve patient care. "The tracking of information is a huge issue, and a major safety issue. This is great for quality, consistency, and accuracy," Dr. Aalberg says.

The EMR system chosen by MMC is called Logician, and was developed by Medicalogic. A version of the program has been used in MMC's Outpatient Clinics for several years. Dr. Aalberg says it is likely to "go to the forefront" as EMR systems gain wider acceptance.

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