Carolina eHealth Alliance saves more than $1 million over one year

An electronic exchange that allows emergency room doctors at different hospitals in the tri-county region to share patient information saved more than $1 million in unnecessary admissions and redundant procedures over 12 months, a 2013 study shows.

The Medical University of South Carolina will present findings from the study at an assembly of the American College of Emergency Physicians in Seattle on Tuesday.

The Carolina eHealth Alliance, first launched with grant money by MUSC and Roper St. Francis Healthcare two years ago, now includes all four Lowcountry hospital systems.

“We knew intuitively that sharing information between otherwise siloed hospital systems would reduce redundant testing, imaging, CT scans, X-rays, medication prescriptions, admissions,” said Dr. Christine Carr, the alliance’s clinical leader.

For example, an ER doctor at Trident Medical Center may not need to order a lab test for a patient if a similar test had been administered recently at East Cooper Medical Center. The alliance allows doctors to access the results of that test.

One lab test may not cost much, but the savings add up. The 12-month study, which ended in February, showed the Carolina eHealth Alliance reduced services and charges across all hospital systems by $1,035,656 over one year.

“I think it’s probably more than that — way more than that. That doesn’t include any of the time savings,” said Dr. Dan Lewis, an emergency room physician and the medical director of Roper Northwoods. “The time savings to us and the patients is huge.”

There are more than 5,000 hospitals in the U.S., but only about 120 successful similar health information exchanges, Carr estimated. This study was one of the first to explore the impact of cost and efficiency that these systems produce, Carr said.

“From a really practical standpoint, hospitals won’t collect as much revenue ... and I know they’re OK with that. It will allow us to better take care of patients,” she said.

But the alliance comes with its own challenges too. Funding for the program, which costs more than $250,000 a year to run, threatens its future.

“Currently this is funded by equal contributions from all four hospital systems,” Carr said, but private insurance companies, Medicare and Medicaid all reap huge savings from it.

A meeting at MUSC on Oct. 23, which will include hospital leadership, physicians, private insurance companies and the state Medicaid agency, has been called to discuss the program’s future financing.

“We don’t know who should pay to sustain this,” Carr said.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.

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