In his 2004 State of the Union address, then-President George W. Bush advocated for electronic medical records (EMRs), proclaiming, “By computerizing health records, we can avoid dangerous medical mistakes, reduce costs, and improve care.” The Bush Administration pushed EMRs to the tune of billions of dollars in grants and other incentives. The trend was continued throughout the Obama Administration as well.
Now, after more than a decade with EMRs as a public policy priority, EMRs have been adopted by many hospitals as primary methods of managing patient information. Almost every department shares patient information digitally between the physician and staff members, from the ER to the lab to the physician’s office. With this ability to track data over time and monitor procedures such as blood pressure and vaccinations, EMRs transform practices to a more patient-centered experience.
The adoption of EMRs has not been universal, however, as some rural hospitals have not kept pace with their metropolitan counterparts. In the past decade as EMRs have become more widely available, the rates of advanced IT adoption remained low at many rural hospitals. While integrating new medical software has its challenges, the advancement of patient care, particularly in a specialized field such as radiology, can be greatly enhanced with such integration. Rural hospitals should move quickly to advance these initiatives.
Despite early reservations, EMR systems have eased workflows for physicians and their staff—especially radiologists. In radiology, EMR implementation improves the storage and usage of digital images. Further, EMR integration with a Radiology Information Service (RIS) has streamlined and improved departments through the compatibility of the two services.
With workflow management as the greatest asset, hospitals with the EMR/RIS integration will further benefit from the connectivity that this integration brings in expanding the use of experts and specialists beyond a hospital’s geography. Problems created by great distances between hospitals, patients, and remote clinical service providers are solved through the connectivity of EMRs. The ability to share such information in ‘one-click’ speed can bring life-saving results for patients in smaller towns. As a highly technical field, rural radiology departments and their patients stand to benefit from advanced storage and networking capabilities.
As previously noted, hospital leadership may have some reservations about implementing EMRs. The lengthy process of integrating EMR software to unite various hospital departments requires a healthy staff size to maintain business as usual while the IT infrastructure update occurs.
The largest issue keeping rural hospitals from integrating EMRs is funding. The millions of dollars in upfront costs to integrate and manage new EMR software are less accessible for rural hospitals than some urban counterparts. However, there are resources available. According to Healthit.gov, grant and funding options tailored specifically for rural health systems have opened opportunities for rural health providers to adopt the latest software tools. With such financial support in consideration, advancing EMRs should remain a realistic priority for hospitals regardless of their location.
In our experience working with rural hospitals and health systems, we have noticed clear benefits in leveraging the latest technology tools, particularly in radiology departments who have successfully utilized EMRs. Since 1975, we've witnessed the transformation from paper-based recordkeeping to digital formats, so we understand the challenges of updating to an entirely new system and maintaining innovative tools. The integration of EMRs has finally brought many of the services in a rural hospital up to the standards of an urban one. The quality of service between the two is arguably almost indistinguishable.
With financial support available, we encourage all hospital leadership to evaluate the latest advances in health IT and consider what is best for your organization. At the end of the day, it benefits high-tech specialty services like radiology, but most importantly, it benefits patients.