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Digital Health Records and the Swine Flu


Business Week - Posted by: Steve Hamm on August 26

The promise of digital medicine has been trashed by skeptics, including some at BusinessWeek. Call me crazy, but it seems to me that warning against digital health records today is like railing against the dangers of the automobile in 1900. Or like urging people to keep reading magazines on paper rather than reading the same material online. It might ruin the paper publishing industry! I haven’t made a study of the debate, but I came across an example of how digitization, potentially, can make a huge difference: A partnership of emergency room physicians based in New Jersey, Emergency Medical Associates (, was on the forefront of using electronic health records years ago and is now putting health care information at the fingertips of doctors, administrators, and government leaders. It could even help the nation deal with a Swine Flu pandemic, which, the government now estimates, could cause up to 90,000 deaths in the US and infect between 30 percent and 50 percent of the population.

So, who are these folks at EMA? The organization provides physicians (330) and other emergency room professionals (200) to 21 ERs in New Jersey, New York City, and southern New York State. It also handles the digital information connected to the work they do. With about 1 million hospital visits per year involving its physicians, the company has a wealth of information in its database. (For those of you shopping around for technology, EMA developed the basic emergency medical info system, WEBeMARS, and now sells it to others via a company it owns, EDIMS; and the analytics engine that slices and dices the data comes from SAP Business Objects.) Among other things, EMA uses the analytics tool to spot treatment trends at the hospitals it serves.

That’s how, last spring, it knew very early that the Swine Flu epidemic was hitting the Northeast. EMA’s data spotters noticed when the flu arrived and watched it spread from New York City out into the suburbs. “We knew before New Jersey knew and the CDC knew that there was a flu outbreak,” says EMA’s President, Dr. Raymond Iannaccone.

EMA immediately notified government health managers and set up a task force to manage its response to the first wave of the flu. It fed the info, real-time, to ER managers so they could shift staffing quickly in response to the spike in patients. It also warned ERs further from the city to brace for the onslaught.

Organizations that don’t use electronic health records might not have begun to notice the surge in demand until it was too late to respond in an orderly fashion.

Now, EMA is preparing for the second wave of the Swine Flu, which is expected to begin in October. It’s helping ERs develop their contingency plans, and is prepared to help public health and safety officials route ambulances carrying victims to hospitals that can handle them if things get too busy for others. “We are the early warning system for anybody who will listen,” says Iannaccone.

Hopefully, a lot of people are listening—including some of the digital health doubters.

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