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A new federal grant could revolutionize how Pennsylvania physicians access patient information.

After receiving $17.1 million of federal stimulus funds, the Governor’s Office of Health Care Reform is developing a statewide system to share electronic medical records between health institutions, called the Pennsylvania Health Information Exchange, or PHIX.

Currently, “sharing of information outside of a health system doesn’t happen very often electronically,” said Martin Ciccocioppo, vice president of research at the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania.

When patients are transferred between institutions, their medical records must be communicated by fax, files on a CD or paper records.

If an electronic infrastructure is developed, it could have significant effects on patient care by eliminating duplicate medical services and coordinating care more effectively, according to Ciccocioppo.

The University of Pennsylvania Health System is planning to participate in PHIX, according to Health System spokeswoman Susan Phillips. However, she stressed that “it is too early to tell exactly how it will work.”

“The biggest hurdle that we have to face is how to pay for [PHIX],” said Ciccocioppo.

Because many hospitals and private practices are still computerizing their health records, there are limited resources available for developing infrastructure for health information exchanges.

Such limitations may affect Penn’s involvement in a regional effort to form a health information exchange in southeastern Pennsylvania, as a localized alternative to PHIX.

According to Ciccocioppo, Penn has “disengaged” from discussions to develop a local system.

“It’s a matter of resources,” said Ciccocioppo. “If they think PHIX is going to be available sooner for cheaper, they can’t be distracted by participating in two different health information exchange efforts,” he said.

The Health System is “waiting for more details to enable us to make a decision” on the southeastern Pennsylvania system, Phillips wrote in an e-mail. “We remain supportive of its goals … but it remains to be seen if it will be more effective to focus on a statewide approach.”

Pressure to devote resources to the most effective approach are especially relevant since only 10 percent of cost savings from electronic health information exchanges will go to health providers, according to Ciccocioppo.

“The patient is the ultimate beneficiary because they’re getting better and more timely care, no matter where or when they’re being treated,” he said.

He added that a regional health exchange would be advantageous for the southeastern Pennsylvania area because local providers would have more control over its functions.

“If the local system decides that exchanging diagnostic images is very important, they can implement a structure that supports that,” he said.

The local system “would ultimately connect to PHIX,” Ciccocioppo said. But it “might want to have a different focus,” he said.

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