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Pace Credited with Leveraging Technology to Improve Rural Health Care

February 10, 2014 - Hugo, OK – Rural health care is unique. Practitioners do more with less. On top of that, attracting specialists to rural communities is difficult, hospitals and clinics operate on very tight budgets and patients often travel distances to get specialty care. However, technology is making life a little easier for both providers and patients.

That’s where the Rural Health Network (RHN) of Oklahoma comes in. Stacie Pace, RHN’s director, has been instrumental in connecting providers with the technology needed to improve quality outcomes for patients. Pace helped to forge a relationship with MyHealth Access Network, an Oklahoma-based nonprofit which includes more than 200 organizations, designed to improve the quality of health care delivery. It is important to note that MyHealth does not provide direct care. Instead, it offers health care providers the technology needed to support efficient, quality-driven health care outcomes for patients, using a platform called a health information exchange, or HIE.

In very simple terms, an HIE allows patient medical records to be shared electronically between providers. When providers share information, efficiency, time and money are saved, while medical errors are reduced.

“MyHealth Network had already done the heavy lifting in terms of how to implement an HIE, how it integrates with a health care system and where a network like RHN should start first,” Pace said. “Anytime you introduce technology into a framework that has historically operated on paper, there are learning curves and ebbs and flows. Developing a partnership with MyHealth was instrumental in our success as a network to get our providers acclimated to a new, more advanced way of entering and storing patient data, and delivering quality, ‘interactive’ patient care. In the end, everybody benefits.”

The migration to an HIE started a few years ago when a number of hospitals and clinics in southeast Oklahoma recognized that they could do their jobs better if they collaborated. They decided to join an existing health information exchange network, rather than build one from scratch. “Rural America is left to its own devices when it comes to technology,” said MyHealth CEO and Founder, David Kendrick, M.D., M.P.H.  “I think the ability of a technology organization to be relevant in a rural area is dependent on an ambassador, like the Rural Health Network, to introduce the technology, help people understand it and help [us] understand what the community’s unique challenges are.”

Pace has also helped physician offices earn “meaningful use” certification. From a patient perspective, meaningful use requires providers to implement electronic health records (EHRs) in a manner that promotes “meaningful” patient outcomes.
“Most patients are familiar with how other industries like airlines, travel and online banking work,” Kendrick said.

“Location is irrelevant as long as they get the information they need. What patients may not be aware of is that health care isn’t there yet. There are still medical records on paper charts locked up in rooms in all of these different offices. If a patient gets sick or is acting as a caregiver for a loved one, they’ve probably experienced the difficulty of getting records copied and moved from one place to another so that care can be provided in an effective way. Up until the last few years, that is how the health care industry did things. As health care has become more complex, information management has not kept pace with these complexities.”

Meaningful use, mandated by the federal government, intends to create an environment where EHRs are installed and implemented in a way that adds efficiency to patient care. The patient benefits by corresponding safely with his or her provider via email, electronically accessing charts, lab results, or even doctor’s notes securely, as records are stored in one central location where doctors can easily retrieve and share information. An added benefit is a reduction in duplicative medical procedures and tests, errors made due to poorly transcribed notes, along with physician supports like automated allergy alerts and more.

Jay Weatherford, associate director for Little Dixie Community Action Agency, credits Pace for spearheading the HIE migration. “Stacie sits on MyHealth’s board, Oklahoma’s most prominent HIE,” he said. “She has an uncanny ability to network and find resources and opportunities to support this initiative.”
Weatherford also recognized Pace for helping to recruit participants in the area’s Community Health Involvement Organization (CHIO), which is targeting pervasive prescription drug abuse and overdose deaths. Unintentional deaths from prescription meds now trump overdose deaths from heroin and cocaine, combined.

Even with these successes, much work remains.

Weatherford said that as an RHN board member, he would like to see the organization become a vehicle for rural health care innovation, communication, cost modeling and resource development that creates a synergy between providers and patients. “I would like to see RHN provide a voice and a trusted resource center for rural health care service providers and their rural communities across the state,” he said. “RHN should provide a transparent window of communication, partnership and community engagement that helps to facilitate successful rural health care delivery systems.”

Pace said she is ready for the challenge, yet cautious about the execution due to health care’s ever-changing landscape. “Ready or not, health care as we once knew it has changed,” she said. “We’ve advanced from a system of paper records to health information exchanges. Health care insurance is now mandated, and health care reform requires providers to invest in technologies that allow for greater efficiencies and lower health care costs. This is an awful lot to chew. It is up to organizations like RHN to roll with these changes, regardless of the challenges. Our goal is to package the resources needed to facilitate these changes in a manner that is consumable for our providers, and invaluable to the patients they serve.”

Pace credited Little Dixie as a “surrogate parent,” that offered the necessary leadership to help RHN develop its infrastructure. In addition, Little Dixie has shared its fiscal operating environment, as well as its administrative leadership and board oversight. Through its funding partners, the community action agency has provided “soft” operating capital to support RHN’s development.