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SLO County hospitals go digital

Dr. Pravir Vatsa, of Sierra Vista hospital in San Luis Obispo, accesses patient information with a new medical records system. Behind him are portable work stations used by nurses on their rounds.
Dr. Pravir Vatsa, of Sierra Vista hospital in San Luis Obispo, accesses patient information with a new medical records system. Behind him are portable work stations used by nurses on their rounds. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Hoping to cut costs and reduce medical errors, Central Coast hospitals are changing the way medical records are stored and accessed.

Tenet Healthcare, which owns Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo and Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton, went live with its electronic record keeping in September.

Catholic Healthcare West, which owns Arroyo Grande Community Hospital, French Hospital Medical Center and Marian Medical Center of Santa Maria, began its transition to digital record keeping in December 2010.

“The second and third phases are scheduled to be completed by spring of 2013,” said CHW Communications Manager Jennifer Marquez.

Once completed, “the new system will create a single, consolidated and continuously updated electronic health record for each patient,’’ she said. “It will offer a complete picture of a patient’s vital medical history in one place, which will be readily available to the patient’s health care providers.”

The push to modernize medical record keeping is being fueled by incentives the federal government offers to doctors and hospitals.

“What is happening both with hospitals, and currently with physicians, is Medicare is incentivizing us to be electronic,” said Ron Yukelson, spokesman for Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center.

Hospitals and offices that don’t meet the new regulations by the end of 2014 will lose subsidies and face financial penaltiesAccording to Yukelson, physicians were supposed to start ordering prescriptions electronically last year. He said those who do receive a 2 percent increase in reimbursement.

Federal officials are expected to spend billions of dollars in economic stimulus funds over the next several years to encourage hospitals to switch to digital.

Arroyo Grande Community Hospital, French Hospital Medical Center and Marian Medical Center of Santa Maria are among 14 CHW hospitals that use electronic health records with the system, Meditech 6.0. CHW owns 41 hospitals in California, Nevada and Arizona.

The transition to paperless record keeping is expensive. According to Tenet’s website, the company plans to invest nearly $200 million from 2009 to 2014 to digitize all Tenet hospitals.

Sierra Vista and Twin Cities are among the first seven of 49 Tenet hospitals making the switch.

Their system, called Cerner, allows hospitals, medical organizations and medical staff to share medical records and other patient information.

“The system improves patient care by improving communication,” said Jason Chang, director of business development at Twin Cities.

Nationwide, the transition to electronic record keeping has received mixed reviews. On the Central Coast the response is no different.

“It’s a new thing. We’ll have to go through the pains of it until we learn the system,” said Dr. Pravir Vatsa, internal medicine physician at Twin Cities and Sierra Vista, who acknowledged that he initially didn’t like using the system.

“It does initially slow you down, but once you get used to it, it makes your day easier,” he said, adding that employees are working with Cerner software developers to make the system easier to use.

The goal of bringing medical record keeping into the computer age, according to officials at Sierra Vista, is to improve patient care and safety by reducing the chance of medical errors and the length of time patients stay in the hospital or at doctor’s offices.

“It gives us a better overall picture of patient care,” said Randy Richards, registered nurse clinical informaticist at Sierra Vista.

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