High Tech Improves Healthcare

Berkshire Eagle (Pittsfield, MA)

March 26, 2012

Berkshire Health Systems hasn?t been shy about putting technology to work. A better look at your brain chemistry, a more painless way inside your abdomen and the most daunting health information project ever undertaken locally are just some of the measures the county?s largest employer is working on.

In diagnosis and in surgery, BHS is finding new and more sophisticated ways to take advantage of medical machinery it already owns. In every department?from the emergency room to primary care?administrators are trying to create a meaningful patient information database that might change the way doctors do business.

One of the biggest non-medical advancements recently is the electronic health record (EHR). In short, it?s the translation of every paper patient file into a searchable, digital record?a change sweeping across the country because the transition is mandated by the federal Affordable Care Act.

Done right, EHRs might allow doctors to manage entire patient populations better, according to family practitioner Mark Snowise, M.D. ?What the electronic health record does is it allows us to proactively ? look at my patient population, tell me all the patients that have diabetes and tell me all those patients that are uncontrolled,? said Snowise, BHS? new medical director of informatics.

?Who are my patients over 50 who?ve never had a physical? There?s no way to do that besides sifting through thousands and thousands of charts. And electronic health records make this much more efficient.?

EHRs can be expensive and cumbersome to implement. But in the past decade, hospital operations at Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield and Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington?both owned by BHS?have been equipped with electronic records through a system known as Meditech. So has North Adams Regional Hospital.

This past November, the 18 physician practices affiliated with BHS were brought online to a digital health record called AllScripts. Other institutions and private practices in the county have selected their own software. Making it possible for all these healthcare software systems to talk to each other is expected to be a complicated process.

?That is a monstrous challenge. We have to get the foundation right,? said William Young, BHS? chief information officer. That?s why BHS has invested in a tool known as the enterprise master patient index, which can correctly identify individuals, particularly those with similar names, in the system.

To ease the transition within the Berkshires, BHS has been trying to get private practices to sign on with Allscripts, and this spring a handful of physician groups will go online with the hospital?s e-records system.

But not every private practice wants to jump on board, and Young estimates there already are more than a dozen e-health software systems in use in the Berkshires. ?There?s a lot of doctors that have made their decisions on other systems, but a lot of doctors are unsure where they?re going, so those discussions continue,? Young said.

Beyond this complicated interfacing that remains in the works, e-health leaders say it won?t be long before the county?s patients can access their health records online from home through a patient portal. ?The concept moves away from an office-owned note to a patient chart,? Snowise said. ?The goal would be the chart be accessible to the patient, so no matter where you are, there?s one central place.?

New uses of two other pieces of technology at Berkshire Medical Center are expanding the diagnostic and treatment options available to patients.

BHS owns two of the three magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines in the Berkshires?the third is at North Adams Regional Hospital?and performs about 14,000 diagnostic scans annually. Costing upward of $700,000, recent upgrades to the two machines have improved their reads on the liver and brain, and making the images they create wiggle-proof.

New software that can read brain chemistry through the MRI scans means fewer complicated procedures, according to Anthony DePasquale, an administrator in the radiology department.

In the surgical world, a device the hospital acquired in the summer of 2010 for gynecology and urology is making surprising strides in other specialties. BMC bought the da Vinci Si HD, a robotic assistance machine manipulated by surgeons, to use for prostate surgery and hysterectomies, and the number of procedures done with the robot is rising.

But hospital leaders also say increased physician interest has meant that the machine, which makes much smaller incisions and therefore leads to quicker recovery times, is also available for local applications in weight loss and chest surgery.

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