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Information technology improves health care in the North Country

Joanna Richards

While lots of industries turned to information technology long ago to improve efficiency, accuracy and collaboration, until now, health care has lagged behind. Now, a big project has aimed to leverage IT in the health care in the state’s rural North Country.  

Last time you went to the doctor, did they make notes in a hefty paper file? And were they still writing when you left your appointment?

Now in the North Country, physicians are more likely to be wielding laptops, and many aspects of the documentation process are taking place electronically.

So, presumably that’s easier for physicians, but health care providers say these changes can also improve the quality of your health care.

Nancy Coughlin is a nurse practitioner at a school-based health center the North Country Children's Clinic runs at North Elementary in Watertown. She's just begun using electronic medical records.

“It is so much quicker to document what you need to document, and spend your time talking to the patient,” Coughlin said.

Coughlin also says electronic records increase the accuracy and availability of information, and help different providers collaborate with each other. She can see a patient's past treatments, any emergency visits, lab results and the results of visits elsewhere.

“In the past, you'd have to have them sign a release, you either fax or mail the release to the other provider, you wait however many days it takes them to look up the record and send it back to you. Now I can do that in the space of about two minutes,” Coughlin said.

Coughlin’s timesaving is due to a new health information exchange that allows the sharing of records across different locations. In this case, an exchange called HealtheConnections stretches across a 19-county region of northern and central New York state.

The Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization was behind this push for e-records in the north country. A state grant enabled the group to purchase the software and technical support to link 37 health care practices up with the information exchange.

The organization is also behind the uptake in telemedicine in the north country. That’s when medical appointments with a patient and provider take place via a video link.

Erin Cooney is a licensed clinical social worker with the Children's Clinic who has used telemedicine to get her mental health patients into appointments with providers faster.

“I think it's excellent. We're in an area that desperately needs mental health services, but even more so, psychiatrists who work with children. The wait times are – it can be up to six months,” she said.

Denise Young, director of the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization, says telemedicine is an important way to boost contact with practitioners in a rural region with a major shortage. Currently, there are telemedicine links for stroke care in hospitals, and the Lewis County schools have a pilot project aimed at managing diabetes in children.

“So there's all these little pockets, and now we're seeking to do bigger, larger projects,” Young said.

Another innovation is the patient portal.

Much like with online banking, patients will be able to sign onto a secure site where they can access all their health information at once.

Dr. Steven Lyndaker is an internist at Lowville Medical Associates. He was the first physician in the north country to make these portals available to his patients. Now, a quarter of his practice's caseload – 300 patients – are using them.

Lyndaker says they're especially useful for adult children managing the care of an elderly parent, and for people with chronic conditions, like diabetes.

“And what this allows people to do is go in, look at their lab results, see how they're doing as far as their average blood sugar is concerned, their kidney function, their cholesterol levels,” Lyndaker said.

All the medical providers interviewed for this story agreed that there’s a learning curve involved in adopting all this new technology, and the transition period can be tough. But Nancy Coughlin, with the North Country Children's Clinic, thinks the change is worth it.

“You know I really think this is going to change the way health care is delivered. And I think it's all for the good,” she said.