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PA has Rx for modernizing healthcare communications

Pittsburgh pediatrician Paul Rosen is a healthcare innovator. Just ask the editors of esteemed medical journal Pediatrics, who published his 2007 patient study. Or you can talk to the Agency of Healthcare Research and Quality, who asked Rosen to be the first host of their monthly Chats On Change meeting and podcast to discuss healthcare breakthroughs and best practices. But you won't find Rosen's innovation treating patients at your doctor's office. It won't help you through surgery or increase recovery time. In fact, you won't find it in your doctor's office at all. You will find it in your inbox.

Dr. Rosen conducted his first e-mail communication program at the UPMC Children's Hospital back in 2004. Of the 306 families who enrolled, the decision was unanimous: interaction with their physician was faster and their quality of care improved. It may seem like a no-brainer in 2010, but as advanced as modern medicine can be, most doctors are woefully behind when it comes to information technology. Digitization of medical records, increased communication with patients and even putting prescription information online are technology problems that should have been solved years ago. But a few key innovators are seeing to it that Pennsylvania becomes a leader in healthcare technology, creating new jobs and increasing patient care along the way.

"They say that when the telephone was invented, it took 40 years for them to put it in the doctor's office," says Rosen. "These are people who can put a camera down someone's intestine but can't send an e-mail? Good communication is a part of good healthcare."

Since Rosen's 2007 study, e-mail communication has become common practice in the doctor-patient relationship. Some states have even enacted paid e-visits, where patients can get a full e-mail consultation as an inexpensive substitute for a full doctor's visit. This has led Rosen to continue delving into new communication technologies to stay connected with his patients. Earlier this year, he updated patients on the availability of the H1N1 vaccine using the UPMC Twitter account and has been researching the best application of text message updates.

Dr. Rosen's foresight on patient communication comes at a time when the nation is in the grip of a contentious battle over widespread healthcare reform. But while red-and-blue- staters squabble over everything from pre-existing conditions to a public option, advancing communication technology in healthcare is a rare bipartisan exception. Every healthcare proposal that has had any measure of success has had provisions for digitizing medical records. Everyone from Hillary Clinton to Newt Gingrich championed President Obama's addition of $19 billion of stimulus funding to update medical records and incentivize medical professionals not to drag their feet. And looking at the jobs it is creating for Pennsylvania already, it is easy to see why.

Kelly Lewis heads up TechQuest, a consortium of Pennsylvania business leaders interested in creating a more vibrant technology sector in the Keystone State. Lewis comes prepared with a highly lauded background. Before becoming CEO of the Technology Council of Central Pennsylvania, he was a State rep for his hometown of Pittston, where he campaigned on technology job creation. This former legislator's eyes have already turned to dollar signs as TechQuest has researched all the available revenue streams from this emerging industry.

"The Federal Government has nearly $50 billion earmarked for health IT over the next three years, and doctors and physicians will spend even more to make themselves eligible for these monies" says Lewis. "For Pennsylvania to build on the companies we already have doing this work will allow us to grow and lead a new industry."

For the last three years, TechQuest has been doing their part, leading the state Healthcare Information Exchange. But helping in the exchange of information only goes so far without the proper infrastructure in place. That's why the TechQuest Hub (http://tqhub.higherinfogroup.com/) was created as a portal for physicians to connect with healthcare IT firms across the state to get the right professional to update paper medical records. Companies like Harrisburg-based Higher Information Group, a former office supply company, now shows sales approaching $10 million by offering document management solutions for the switchover of digital medical records. Companies like HIG employ hundreds of Pennsylvania's IT professionals, aiding the state's long-developing tech sector.

Some regions of PA have already begun the switch, with healthcare systems taking the reins and creating better communication with their patients. Geisinger Health Systems, a network of healthcare facilities headquartered in Danville, created MyGeisinger.org, an online portal which allows patients to view lab results, schedule appointments and even view portions of their medical record. Since its launch in 2005, it has been called one of the most advanced patient portals in the U.S, allowing doctors from Maine to Modesto to view your medical history with a simple log-in. Once systems like Geisinger and UPMC are able to connect to one another, statisticians will be able to view Pennsylvania's overall health statistics, chart public health concerns and even identify pockets of environmental disease.

Over the next 12-18 months, health systems like Geisinger and UPMC, who have digital records in place, will start to join together onto one system. Regions that are a little more behind will take longer to get acclimated. But with stimulus funding rolling into PA, Lewis puts the timeline around three years until we have a robust, interconnected healthcare network worthy of today's technological capabilities It may have taken the telephone 40 years to get into the doctor's office, but in PA, physician e-mail won't be groundbreaking much longer.  

John Steele is a freelance writer and blogger in Philadelphia. He enjoys music snobbery, trash television and laughing at hipsters. Send feedback here.

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Paul Rosen at the UPMC Children's Hospital (Heather Mull)

Paul Rosen meets with a patient and his mother (Heather Mull)

Dr. Supriyo U. Ghosh fills out a prescription in an exam room with a hand-held PDA (Brad Bower)

Dr. Supriyo U. Ghosh sends patient Kelly Priddy on her way after instantly filing a prescription (Brad Bower)
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