Katrina points to national EHR system

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At the University of Texas Health Center at Tyler, which took care of 65 Hurricane Katrina evacuees and 85 Hurricane Rita evacuees, the center's electronic health record (EHR) system went untapped.

"We have an electronic medical record, but because patients came from areas that did not have or didn't have access to electronic records, it made it very difficult for us to manage the care," said Drew von Eschenbach, the center's administrative director of business services.

Without an opportunity to contact patients' doctors or access their records, medical care for the evacuees was based on an exam and taking a person's word on their condition.

But the lack of accessible records also forced officials to be creative by reaching out to pharmacies and insurance companies to gather information. "The care rendered was more than adequate, but it did take a little bit longer and more diagnostic time to figure everything out," said Gary Kempf, director of critical care services at the 101-bed center.

A universal EHR system would have made the response much easier and safer, officials said. Von Eschenbach said he hopes the lessons of Katrina will push local health care providers to work together toward a national health information network, a vision advocated by Dr. David Brailer, national health IT coordinator at the Department of Health and Human Services.

But the next step is a regional system, von Eschenbach said, explaining that EHR systems need to branch out from individual hospitals to regional and state systems, then ultimately to a national network. "We really can't get to a national record where we are now," he said.

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