UCSF Launches Electronic Exchange of Health Information

On September 1st UCSF Medical Center turned on electronic health information exchange with our Epic electronic health record. It’s an important step forward and one of the features of electronic health records I’m most enthusiastic about. It has the power to improve health not just at our own institution but wherever our patients go. We had hoped to enable this as part of our June 2nd inpatient big-bang go-live, but decided to wait 90 days to make sure some final details were fully hammered out.

Epic has two levels of electronic health information exchange, “CareEverywhere” for exchanging information between Epic customers, and “CareElsewhere” for more limited exchange with a non-Epic EHR. For now we’ve turned on CareEverywhere, connecting us with participating northern California providers like UC DavisStanford, and Palo Alto Medical Foundation, although there’s no geographic limit within the United States for where records can be shared. (With their particular sense of humor, Epic presented this week at their annual meeting on the future “Intergalactic” sharing of health records, emphasizing the point with photos of the Curiosity Rover and The Netherlands)  Our first exchange was at 10am on the 1st when we electronically received records for an ill youth hospitalized at UCSF who had previously received care at Stanford, and we had a dozen exchanges in the first 7 days.

Like always, we only share health information between institutions after getting written permission from our patient.  The large majority of patients want their health information shared electronically with other physicians and hospitals when we need it to provide safe and appropriate care, as long as we are sharing securely. In my experience, my patients are surprised to learn even major hospitals have largely remained isolated islands of information. When I collect permission from a patient to obtain their records from a hospital across town, patients are usually surprised and discomforted to learn I didn’t have access to it already.  Health care is far behind other industries in this kind of information integration, and fixing this in a hurry is a centerpiece of the federal government’s standards for health IT implementation.

For the last few decades health records have been shared primarily by telephone and fax. We call the primary physician’s office (for example) and if we actually reach the physician immediately, we usually get their best recollection of the patient off the top of their head, followed by more complete information by fax hours or days later if at all. If the patient was recently hospitalized, getting that hospital record requires work from that hospital’s medical records department, seldom a 24/7 operation, and it arrives as a thick, grainy, often disordered, fax-of-a-copy-of-a-scan of the original record. This helps, but the information has to be manually transcribed in to our own record, which is only as accurate and complete as any 10-fingered process.

With electronic health information exchange, sharing patient records is more secure and more accurate. The electronic point-to-point connection between institutions is encrypted and the identity of the patient is confirmed electronically between the EHRs. The patient’s health information arrives immediately in our EHR instead of on the tray of a fax machine some unknown number of hours later.  A physician on our receiving end reads and validates the electronically exchanged information before incorporating it in to our own record. The exchange is at the level of data instead of pieces of paper, and so discrete information like medication lists, drug allergies, problem lists, and other pieces of history can be synchronized between the institutions.

Unfortunately we’re still not able to exchange information with San Francisco General Hospital or Kaiser Northern California, two providers with whom we share many patients.  Kaiser Northern California has been on Epic for years, but does not to participate in electronic health information exchange. San Francisco General is moving fast on implementing its own electronic health record, and we look forward to connecting with them when the capability on both sides is ready.