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February 18, 2010

NIU to lead movement for electronic medical records

DeKalb, Ill. — Northern Illinois University has been selected to lead a state-wide initiative that will make electronic health records as much a part of a visit to the doctor as a stethoscope.

The university’s Division of Administration and University Outreach has received a grant for slightly more than $7.5 million, spread over two years, from the Department of Health and Human Services to create a Health Information Technology Regional Extension Center (REC) that will help doctors adopt the technology. The grant is funded by the economic stimulus bill passed last fall (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act). That bill included $19 billion to facilitate adoption of electronic health records nationwide.

The NIU center, which will be one of 70 such facilities nationwide, will assist primary care physicians all across Illinois, except for those in the city of Chicago who will be served by a separate REC operated by Northwestern University. The two universities will coordinate efforts to make a state-wide system that is as seamless as possible and one that will ultimately integrate with a nationwide system.

“Advancements in health information technology significantly improve our health care system by reducing the costs of maintaining and tracking medical records, increasing efficiency and reducing medical errors and duplicative tests,” said Congressman Bill Foster, who helped secure the grant. “I am pleased that the stimulus will allow NIU to take a leading role in the use of health IT by our area health care providers, as it will greatly benefit doctors and patients alike.”

Related content: Foster Announces $7.5 Million Stimulus Award for Health Information Technology at NIU >>

The goal of the grant is to quickly create an electronic medical records systems that puts all of a patient’s pertinent medical information at the fingertips of any medical professional they visit. Doing so will improve care and cut costs.

The government hopes to have the system substantially complete within two years. Meeting that ambitious timeline is a daunting task, said John Lewis, director of NIU’s Regional Development Institute, who is the principal investigator on the project.

“I’ve been involved in health care for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything move this quickly,” said Lewis. “It’s so big and so complex, services like those offered by the REC will be instrumental in helping physicians meet the deadlines and allowing them to reap the greatest benefit at the lowest possible cost.”

The center will try to expedite the process by:

  • Educating physicians about the benefits of electronic health records;
  • Helping them identify certified products that will best meet their needs;
  • Connecting them with vendors to install and implement the systems;
  • Assisting them in getting those systems up and running.

The center also will help keep physicians up to date on best practices related to issues like clinical decision support, protecting patient confidentiality and best use of electronic health records software.

Thanks to the grant money announced today, physicians will be able to utilize the REC’s services at minimal cost. The grant money will cover 90 percent of that expense. Another form of incentive will kick in starting in 2011 when the government will increase Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates for physicians who have the systems in place and who meet federal standards for “meaningful use.” Eventually, the government will penalize physicians who do not use the systems by decreasing Medicaid and Medicare payments to them.

The REC will work primarily with priority care providers – family practitioners, doctors of internal medicine, pediatricians and obstetricians who treat Medicare/Medicaid patients and other underserved populations. Those physicians provide about 80 percent of the nation’s health care, but only about 20 percent of them currently utilize electronic health records systems.

“We are excited to play a role in advancing this important health care initiative,” said NIU President John Peters, who noted that it fits well with other initiatives being spearheaded by the university.

Those other initiatives include NIU’s role as the lead agency directing the creation of the Illinois Rural Health Net. That $24 million project will enhance health care across the state by creating a high-speed information network that will allow small and rural hospitals to interact with specialists in metro areas for consultations and transmission of radiography. That network also will facilitate the secure sharing of electronic medical records.

The university also recently entered into a partnership with Tri Rivers Health System in northwest Illinois to develop a strategic plan that will allow health information to flow readily between a wide variety of health care providers and users. This project is part of a statewide effort by the Department of Health and Family Services to create a statewide Health Information Exchange that would be utilized by all health care providers and health stakeholders.

The grant is officially under the auspices of the Office of the National Coordinator, Department of Health and Human Services. It is Award Number 90RC0023/01.

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Media Contact: John Lewis, NIU Division of Administration and University Outreach
Phone: (815) 753-0936
Email: jlewis@niu.edu