Sebelius touts electronic health records in Joplin

The scattering of X-rays and medical records 75 miles away from a Joplin hospital destroyed by a tornado helped illustrate the destructive power of the storm that killed 160 people in May.

But the drenched and torn documents found near Springfield weren’t another disaster. They were back-up copies kept in the hospital’s archives after St. John’s Regional Medical Center switched to electronic patient records a few weeks before.

It’s a move taking place in a growing number of hospitals and doctors’ offices, bolstered by an Obama administration initiative that offered billions of dollars in federal incentives to upgrade technology — and one that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said Monday likely “saved lives” in Joplin.

The former Kansas governor joined Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and other federal, state and local officials on a tour of the disaster site and recovery efforts.

“Think of a typical hospital waiting room, and the infamous clipboard where somebody is being asked to put together their medical history and prescription regime by memory, and add a huge traumatic incident on top of that,” Sebelius said in Associated Press interview later Monday. “There’s no question that ... the availability of an electronic record may have actually saved lives. They were able to immediately go into the treatment phase and not spend a lot of energy trying to reconstruct (records).”

Roughly 20 percent of hospitals and 10 percent of doctors’ offices had converted to electronic health records before Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus plan in the summer of 2009 offered an incentive plan that could reach $27 billion over a decade, Sebelius said. Those participation rates have since doubled, she said, and will likely double again by the next update.

The effort was initially touted as a patient-centered means to eliminate mistakes in prescribing drugs, botching surgeries or making other costly mistakes. But the Joplin tornado offered a compelling example of the ease in which hospitals miles apart can quickly and securely share patient data, said Dr. Robert Belton, trauma director at St. John’s. On May 22, outlying hospitals treating tornado victims received medical records within hours, he said.

“Everybody here is a believer,” Belton said. “This has just made the recovery of patient care that much easier.”

St. John’s continues to operate a mobile medical unit while its parent company, Sisters of Mercy Health System of St. Louis, finishes plans for a new medical center. Construction is scheduled begin next week on a sturdier temporary hospital — the mobile unit is essentially a massive tent — that will allow St. John’s to make it through the next two winters. The new medical center is expected to open in two years, with its location announced next week, Belton said.

Sebelius, who spent six years as governor of Kansas before joining President Barack Obama’s cabinet in 2009, is leading the administration’s effort to move doctors and hospitals to computerized medical records. Providers who don’t comply by 2015 face cuts in Medicare payments.

She also met Monday with Joplin’s school superintendent and reviewed plans for a childhood trauma center to treat the city’s youngest tornado victims.

Also Monday, Nixon said the state will pick up the 10 percent share of tornado debris removal costs not covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency under an expedited debris removal program that runs through next Sunday. The federal government is paying 90 percent of the cost in that area, instead of its typical 75 percent share.

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