Electronic Health Records Prove to be Invaluable After Crisis

Nicole Lurie and Dr. Farzad Mostashari | June 22, 2011

On May 22, a devastating tornado struck Joplin, Mo., killing 134 and devastating a community of some 50,000 people.  As one of a series of storms, it made 2011 the deadliest year for tornadoes in the United States in more than half a century. 

As in all disasters, there were important lessons – not least, that nature will continue to inflict catastrophes unpredictably and in many forms.  We learned once more about heroism, community spirit, and resilience in America.  And we learned again about the importance of disaster preparedness.

In terms of health care, another lesson was repeated.  The Joplin tornado proved once again the resilience and security afforded by hospitals and providers transitioning from paper to electronic health records (EHRs).


EHR Implementation Becoming More Wide Spread

Many patients today assume that their medical records are maintained electronically.  But the truth is that the nationwide conversion to EHRs by health care providers is only now gathering speed.  In 2009, financial incentives for meaningful use of certified EHR technology, as well as new support programs designed especially for smaller practices and hospitals, were authorized under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH), part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Those incentive payments and support programs are now available.

How EHR Implementation Helped Joplin

One of Joplin’s hospitals, St. John’s Regional Medical Center, was heavily damaged.  Five patients and a visitor died in the storm, and the building is closed awaiting repair.  Paper records and x-rays were lost.  Yet just six days after the tornado, the hospital staff was at work again in a new temporary mobile medical unit (purchased in part, coincidently, with HHS hospital preparedness program funds). They were delivering care with full access to their electronic patient records.

Three Weeks before the Storm St. Johns Transitioned to an EHR system

As it happened, three weeks before the storm, St. John’s had completed its transfer to the EHR system maintained by its parent company, the 26-hospital Sisters of Mercy Health System of St. Louis.  The EHR system significantly aided St. John’s in tracking patient medical histories and delivering care based on the full patient records even from their temporary facility.

Paper Records Blown to the Winds

The aftermath of the storm highlighted a major difference between paper records and EHRs.  The paper records still in the hospital on May 22 were literally blown to the winds.  Some records had been found as far as 75 miles away in Springfield.  Anyone finding records with protected health information has been asked to return the records to the Mercy system.

EHRs Were Crucial in Tracking Patients After the Storm 

Dottie Bringle, R.N., Chief Operating Officer and Chief Nursing Officer at St. John’s Mercy Hospital in Joplin, believes that the EHR system was crucial in tracking patients and providing medical information readily after the storm. She said,

“Having an EHR allowed us to be able to know exactly who all the patients were in our hospital so we were able to locate each and everyone fairly quickly after the EF5 tornado hit. If we only had paper [records], it would have been very difficult to manage our patients.”

She continued:

“I feel certain that the ability to gain almost immediate access to the providers that cared for the patients that were at St. John’s in Joplin made a difference in many of these patients’ lives.”

Family Health Center of Joplin Up and Running 72 hours within 72 hours because of EHR System

Less than a mile away, the Family Health Center of Joplin tells a similar story.  It was severely damaged by the storm, but was fortunate enough to have an EHR system, which the center had been using for the last seven years. After the storm, the practice’s IT partner had their system up and running within 72 hours, enabling the center to care for patients from a new temporary location.

Dr. Tracey Godfrey, a health care provider in Joplin, Mo., and a physician leader with the Missouri Regional Extension Center, was very thankful to get the practice in order in such a short period of time.

Dr. Godfrey would “without a doubt” recommend EHRs to colleagues who have not yet made the transition.

“Anyone who has doubts about the benefits of electronic health records, when they see how quickly we had access, and the greater security we have with EHRs, they’ll see you can’t beat it,” she said.


EHRs are More Accessible in Times of Crisis 

The bottom line is that EHRs proved to be more accessible in times of crisis as well as more secure and confidential.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that our nation faces an even bigger emergency of another kind – unsustainable health cost increases, combined with quality of care that is less than we should be achieving.  EHRs, and more broadly heath IT-supported care, are a crucial part of the solution.  Better coordination of care, better accountability for care, better security of information, better diagnosis and treatment, and even better medical research with faster results – all these are possible with health IT.

Along with our hopes and wishes for the people of Joplin, we owe it to all Americans and to ourselves to follow the example of the St. John Regional Medical Center and the Family Health Center of Joplin and make the switch now to EHRs.