One of the main stumbling blocks in the American health care system, many experts say, is the inefficient use of computer technology to manage medical records.
Now, in Santa Barbara County, a network of hospitals, laboratories, pharmacies and doctors is pioneering new technology that will allow medical professionals with different computer systems to share clinical information. The initiative may well be a first step toward the creation of a national patient-care data bank.
It's an effort to save money as well as lives. Some experts believe that information-sharing initiatives like the one in Santa Barbara are key to controlling runaway health care costs.
Five hospitals, more than 800 physicians, as well as regional laboratories and pharmacies in Santa Barbara are testing a digital infrastructure that will allow the secure exchange of sensitive medical data. Developed by a group of stakeholders including local hospital executives, doctors and county health officials, the system is expected to be running by this summer.
The Santa Barbara project is one of hundreds of grassroots efforts nationwide carried out by regional health consortiums. Groups in Tennessee, New York, Colorado, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Indiana have made strong headway in establishing these networks. Within California, initiatives are under way in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and San Diego. Santa Barbara's will be one of the first projects to begin functioning.
"There's a movement that's starting, and it really started in Santa Barbara. It started with the idea that a community could build a secure way to share health care information across all the health care institutions in that community," said Sam Karp, chief program officer at the California HealthCare Foundation, an Oakland health philanthropy that contributed $10 million to the project.
"We believe we are pioneering the development of a workable model for the rest of the country," he added.
The promise is the creation of a system that will link local networks to create large regional networks that will better track patient care as well as reduce redundant tests and unnecessary paperwork that result from incompatible data systems and lack of communication. Eventually, the regional networks will talk with one another, in effect creating a true nationwide medical data repository