Carris Health goes live May 1 with patient health record integration
WILLMAR — For more than a year, teams at Carris Health have been toiling to build and implement an electronic records system that integrates patient information across settings, from the emergency room at Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar to the doctor's office at the Carris Health clinic in Redwood Falls.
Their work is mostly happening behind the scenes. But it's about to become visible to the public when the new system, known as Epic, goes live May 1 at Carris clinics in Willmar, Litchfield, Redwood Falls and New London.
The transition of Carris Health Redwood Hospital and Family Practice Medical Center to Epic is planned for later this year.
It will take time for staff and clinicians to get fully up to speed. Once they do, however, the benefits will begin to emerge, said Dr. David Ross, medical director for information systems and a family practice physician at the Carris Health clinic in Litchfield.
"This is a route to better patient care," he said. "That's at the heart of why we're doing this."
More than half of Minnesota's 146 hospitals and approximately 1,500 clinics across the state use Epic. The Wisconsin-based software company specializes in electronic health record systems for hospitals, independent medical practices, academic medical centers and more.
Rice Hospital and the Carris Health Surgery Center have been on Epic for several years. But Affiliated Community Medical Centers had a different system, making it a challenge for patient medical records to be shared between the clinic and the hospital.
The opportunity to integrate the two arose with the merger in 2018 of ACMC and Rice into Carris Health, a new nonprofit subsidiary of CentraCare Health of St. Cloud. Among the first priorities: uniting the organizations with a shared electronic medical record system.
The project has been underway for more than a year, said Heidi Albrecht, project lead and director of clinical systems.
At least 20 people are on the core team at Carris Health alone, she said.
The conversion is one of the largest ever undertaken within the CentraCare system.
The amount of data involved is massive, Albrecht said. "I'm sure it's in the terabytes."
One indication of the size of the undertaking is the 54,000-plus future appointments that must be converted to Epic before the new system goes live.
Different modules had to be developed for the many health specialties, such as orthopedics, provided by Carris Health.
Epic also will connect ancillary systems such as imaging, lab and billing.
In the past, processes such as scheduling, billing and lab orders each had their own software system. Epic will bring all of them together, Albrecht said. "From an end user standpoint, it looks like one big system."
More than 1,200 staff at six different facilities have been undergoing training on the new system. There have been lots of department meetings to talk about operations and work flow.
"On top of that, we're also doing dress rehearsals for each department," Albrecht said.
Literally hundreds of support staff will be on hand during the two-week transition in May to provide hands-on help.
There will be bumps in the road, Ross said. "We can't plan for every contingency."
But he and Albrecht said considerable work has gone into ensuring the change can be as smooth as possible.
For patients, the changeover will be noticeable.
Appointments have been reduced by 50 percent during the first week of the conversion and 25 percent the second week to give staff time to get accustomed to the new software.
"People can expect longer wait times, especially in central registration," Albrecht said. "Historically that's where the backup usually happens."
There likely will be waits in the exam room as clinicians familiarize themselves with the system.
"I know there will be times when I can't remember what button to hit," Ross said. "I think there'll be more times when I might be staring at the screen when I'm with the patient. Early on, please be patient with us."
As the system's potential starts to become realized, however, Carris Health leaders see significant benefits.
The ability to search for and retrieve patient medical information will be enhanced, Ross said. "The flow of information across systems is exceptionally important."
Built-in reminders will make it easier to deliver optimal care, he said. "In many ways it standardizes best practices so patients end up getting the best care."
Because Epic is used by many of Minnesota's largest health systems such as CentraCare in St. Cloud and Mayo in Rochester, medical records can easily be shared when local patients travel for care.
Down the road, the ability of Carris Health to address population health will be greatly enhanced with improved data collection and analytics.
"You can slice it just about any way you want to," Ross said. "We can start looking at larger and larger datasets and start looking at trends."
Patients also will have a new and improved portal they can sign up for, with features such as online appointment scheduling, medication lists, after-visit summaries and the ability to message their care team.
"The organization has put a lot of time and effort into us going live on Epic," Albrecht said. "The benefits won't all be realized on May 1 but the headache will be well worth it."