Regional health improvement project receives first $100,000   
By Jennifer Lassiter

star staff

ÊÊ  The Appalachian region is stereotypically known for poor health. Statistics prove that the health status of people living in most counties of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia are consistently among the worst in the nation.
  Tobacco use and obesity result in higher than average rates of mortality from cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes, lung disease and cancer. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Tennessee ranks the 7th highest overall in cancer mortality rates, which includes the 50 states and Washington, D.C.
  In Carter County alone, 167 people died of cancer in 2001, and 178 in 2002. Heart disease is the leading killer of Carter County natives. In 2001, 184 people died of this chronic disease.
  A chronic disease is defined as any disease that lasts more than a year and requires ongoing medical care. According to the CDC, more than 90 million Americans live with chronic illnesses, and such diseases account for 75 percent of the nation's $1.4 trillion medical care costs.
  The regional utilization of prescription medications is significantly higher than the national average. Per capita cost for health services is higher than in other comparable regions, and local studies indicate that only 65 percent of treatment is in accordance with recommended clinical practice protocols.
  Although chronic diseases have always been a problem, within the last couple of decades our nation as a whole has been living longer mainly due to extensive advances in modern medicine. Aging communities, however, have been living with more chronic diseases as a result.
  According to a study done by John Hopkins University and prepared by Partnership Solutions, "Chronic Conditions: Making the Case for Ongoing Care", many citizens have multiple chronic conditions, and, in general, people with five or more chronic conditions have an average of almost 15 physicians visits and fill almost 50 prescriptions per year, making it hard for patients and physicians to keep track of health care services and medications.
  With many people seeing several providers in the area, it is difficult for doctors to track their records. Dr. Dale Sargant, vice president of Medical Affairs at Wellmont Health Systems, spoke about the current system. He said that, right now, physicians can call or fax results to other facilities and may or may not be able to get the information to them in a timely manner.
  As a result, several local physicians, health organizations and businesses have joined forces and are calling themselves the Community Health Improvement Partnership (CHIP). CHIP members believe health care systems need to change the way they operate by creating a way for doctors throughout the region to communicate vital patient information to each other.
  The Tri-Cities Data Exchange Project was designed by CHIP members and volunteers to improve health for people in the region by providing timely and accurate information to physicians at the point of care, while also utilizing technology tools to increase the effectiveness of health care delivery.
  The premise of CHIP is to improve health care in the community; to do so, there is a needed change in the information exchange process. According to Sargant, the idea of a data exchange program has been there, but technology is just now catching up with the idea.
  Volunteer members of CHIP began working together in 1992, as the Kingsport Area Health Improvement Project (KAHIP), and since then, they have been exploring the long-term viability of a collaborative system for providers based on improved health outcomes for patients.
  Leisa Jenkins, a spokesperson for CHIP, described the data exchange program as a search engine or browser that facilitates communication between health organizations, creating a "common interface" for health care providers.
  The organization recently received a $100,000 grant to start the program, which will cost an estimated $2 to $3 million. The recent grant was funded by the Foundation for eHealth Initiatives, which will ensure the opportunity to share with and learn from other communities.
  With the help of other employers like Eastman Chemical Company, insurers like BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and John Deere, and community groups like Kingsport Tomorrow, this multi-state effort has gained national recognition for its combined efforts.
  What can a project like this one do for our community and this region?
  It would ensure that the 600,000 people in our region would be able to travel from one health facility to another knowing that their medical records, lab and test results, and prescriptions would be available for any of their doctors, nurses or other health care providers as needed.
  Sargent said, "It would prevent honest mistakes," and be much more convenient for patients and doctors.
  People with chronic diseases have an even greater difficulty with the current health care system because they are more likely, according to a study done by Partnership for Solutions, John Hopkins University, to have three or more physicians at one time and receive conflicting medical advice.
  This new system would cut down the costs of ordering new tests because physicians would be able, with permission from the patient, to view recent tests through the system. Patients in the system will also be able to control who and what information is exchanged, if any.
  If funding is available, the system is scheduled to begin in January 2006. The estimated cost of the fully operational model is approximately $2 to $4 million, which will include administrative expenses, technical hardware, awareness and other operational costs. Patients won't endure any of the costs for the new information technology system.
  The project has partnered with two organizations noted for their innovative ideas and work on health information exchange, CareScience, and HealthAlliant. CareScience writes the software and is contributing greatly to the testing and piloting of the project. HealthAlliant is helping with the business aspect by researching the cost and funding of a project of this magnitude.
  According to Jenkins, this project is one of the largest regional projects in the country. It will have a huge impact on individual lives, Medicare, and TennCare programs and would be a step in the right direction for the region, she said.