Health information networks gain wider use

As more data are exchanged, a survey finds that stakeholders are realizing a return on their investments.

By Pamela Lewis Dolan — Posted Aug. 17, 2009

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The number of hospitals, physician practices and others using health information exchanges has increased 40% in the past year, and many using such systems are starting to see cost savings from their investments, according to an eHealth Initiative study released in late July.

Fifty-seven health information exchange programs reported being operational in 2009, up from 42 in 2008, according to the Sixth Annual Survey of Health Information Exchange.

Hospitals and physician practices saw a return on investment most often, the data showed. Among the 57 programs up and running, 40 reported cost savings, including less staff time spent handling lab results and less money spent on redundant tests. Hospitals accounted for 21 of those reporting a return on their investment; physician practices made up the remaining 19.

"The survey shows the potential for health information exchange to improve efficiency and reduce health care costs nationwide. We have real examples where care delivery was improved and cost savings found," Jennifer Covich, chief operating officer and interim CEO at eHI, said in a statement.

Overall, the survey identified 193 HIEs in the U.S. and its territories, although most are not yet avtive; 150 participated in the study (link).

The eHI is an organization of health care organizations and companies, including the American Medical Association, interested or involved in how technology may improve quality and safety.

Even though more physicians are participating in HIEs, it doesn't mean those doctors have adopted an electronic health record. Forty-one of the operational HIEs provide access to physicians with or without an EHR.

Covich said the HIE itself is considered a "light EMR," which is all many practices have. That's good, she said, because it proves a big investment isn't needed to gain positive results.

The study also found that fewer HIEs are reliant on federal funding to operate: 71 of the 150 initiatives reported they are not dependent on federal funding, up from 64 in 2008. But 90 of them hope or expect to receive funds through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Funding has been a major barrier to HIEs, and a lack of it is what led to many HIEs shutting down in recent years.

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Finding savings

Many of the 57 health information exchanges that are up and running report that they are saving money.

Area of operation HIEs reporting cost savings
Staff time handling lab/radiology results 26
Staff time spent on clerical administration and filing 24
Money spent on redundant tests 17
Cost of care for chronic care patients 11
Medication errors 10

Source: eHealth Initiative's Sixth Annual Survey of Health Information Exchange (link)

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What HIEs provide

Health information exchanges offer a broad range of services. Here are the most popular among the 57 operating exchanges:

Service HIEs offering
Results delivery (lab/diagnostic) 44
Connectivity to EHR 38
Clinical documentation 34
Alerts to providers 31
Electronic prescribing 26

Source: eHealth Initiative's Sixth Annual Survey of Health Information Exchange (link)

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More data changing hands

The types of data being swapped by health information exchanges has expanded in the past year, as has the number of organizations exchanging data.

Type of data HIEs exchanging data in 2008 HIEs exchanging data in 2009
Laboratory data 26 49
Medication data (including outpatient prescriptions) N/A 48
Outpatient laboratory results 25 45
Outpatient episodes of care 23 43
Radiology results 23 39
ED episodes of care 27 36

Source: eHealth Initiative's Sixth Annual Survey of Health Information Exchange (link)

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