WILLMAR -- Rice Memorial Hospital has embarked on an initiative to dramatically expand its information technology capabilities over the next three to four years.
By the end, the city-owned hospital expects to have an information system that not only enhances its ability to provide quality care but also allows it to link and share data with other providers around the region.
"I do believe that technology, used appropriately, over the long run can provide better care for patients and more efficiencies for the organization," consultant Richard Calman told the Rice Hospital board of directors last week.
A hospital team has been working since last year to put together a strategic plan for how it uses information technology.
By doing so, Rice has joined a rapidly growing national movement for hospitals and clinics to become smarter and more sophisticated in the way they electronically manage their clinical information.
There's an added push: Earlier this month the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced the final rules that define "meaningful use" of electronic health records. Organizations that meet these benchmarks, which include 15 core requirements, are eligible for federal stimulus funds.
For Rice Hospital, an estimated $3.6 million in incentives is potentially on the table, said Calman, who is the strategic advisory services manager with Affiliated Computer Services of Dearborn, Mich.
The initiative at Rice Hospital is already moving forward. Four vendors have been chosen to submit proposals for an electronic health records system for the hospital.
"Proposals are on their way to us as we speak," Calman said.
Hospital officials hope to have a new system selected by the end of the year.
Hospital leaders, leaders from the local medical groups and information services staff have all been closely involved as the plan has been put together over the past several months, Calman said. "We really wanted those folks at the table with us."
A work group of local health care providers also is being established to help lead the initiative as it moves ahead.
Unlike the majority of U.S. hospitals and medical clinics, local providers have not lagged at digitizing their patient health records.
Rice Hospital has already adopted numerous elements of the electronic health record, and so have Affiliated Community Medical Centers and Family Practice Medical Center, said Mike Schramm, chief executive of Rice Hospital.
"We've done lots of work. The clinics have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in arriving where they're at with their systems," he said. "The broader picture moving forward is we have to connect these systems. This is the first step toward getting there."
For Rice, it will mean making some changes in its approach to information technology. The hospital has had a long-standing strategy of selecting "best of breed" systems in clinical areas such as the emergency room, the laboratory and radiology.
While these systems work well for individual departments, they are complex to tie together, and multiple systems also result in a higher cost of ownership for the hospital, Calman said.
Rice's strategic plan for information technology, outlined in an 80-page document, calls for a more unified approach that uses core "best of suite" applications.
Because some specialty vendors will need to be retained in some departments, the new system won't be fully integrated, Schramm said.
"But we're going to try to, as best we can, maximize toward a core system," he said.