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by Tom Ogg, Chief Information Officer, Akron Children’s Hospital

It’s a little known fact that February 18 marks the 50th anniversary of the first electronic medical records, which were installed here in Akron, Ohio.

Despite conventional wisdom — which credits Dr. Larry Weed with creating the first electronic medical records for the University of Vermont in the late 1960s — it was actually Akron Children’s Hospital that collaborated with IBM back in 1962 to build the first computer-based patient information system.  It was used to centralize patient records, share patient information, eliminate paperwork and alert nurses when patients needed their medication.   Here is the announcement.

Here is a photo from 1962, when Children’s Hospital pioneered the first electronic medical records. The system replaced pneumatic tubes and dumbwaiters that moved paper-based records around the hospital. Pictured is an IBM RAMAC 305 -- one of the last vacuum tube computers built by IBM -- that stored five megabytes of data.

Today, Akron Children’s is a 345-bed hospital system with 78 facilities throughout the region. After using a homegrown partial electronic health record system for 10+ years, we embarked upon a massive overhaul in 2009.  The challenges to our old system became too complicated and too big, much like the challenges to this country’s overall health care system, which is fragmented among doctors, hospitals, labs, clinical trials and insurance companies.

Akron Children’s is almost half-way through our transformation. Our new system will enable doctors and nurses to bring up an instant digital view of a patient’s entire history.  They will no longer have to reconcile a hybrid of paper and digital records.

Fifty years later, Akron Children's Hospital's Hali Ramsey, RN, Anton Milo, MD, and Cindy Hartman, LPN, recreated the photo to illustrate the promise of analytics and digitized health records. Dr. Milo is holding an iPad tablet -- the smallest iPad, at 16 gigabytes, holds as much data as 3,200 RAMACs.

A primary doctor standing at a patient’s bedside, or at a medical office across town, can see the full spectrum of the patient’s symptoms, history, meds, tests and comments by specialists. They can also learn about any appointments coming up, or follow-up that is required.  For an asthmatic child who is rushed to our emergency room with a broken leg, an orthopedist can instantly check what procedures or medications would conflict with the child’s current regimen.

The new system will also simplify billing. Today parents receive separate bills for physician and facility fees. But they will no longer have to deal with separate bills from the same hospital.

An IT project of this scope affects the entire organization – just about everything except for the foundation of the building.  Not only are we revamping electronic clinical communication, but we are also expanding other technologies as well including a state-of-the art simulation center and new telehealth research project.  To support these initiatives and many others, our IT staff has grown along from 37 people in 2007 to more than 150 today.

So here we are, a half century after Akron Children’s historic milestone. Much like the digital camera, electronic medical records were way ahead of their time.  Connecting health records across “systems of systems” remains a bitter pill to swallow for the vast majority of U.S. hospitals, which are still struggling with IT modernization.  Only 1% are using electronic medical records to their full otential, according to research by HIMSS.

I have worked as an IT consultant for almost 200 hospitals, and I have seen the healthcare industry lag between two to six years behind other sectors like retail, banking and manufacturing.   Now our industry is in the process of a monstrous catch-up.  Healthcare organizations have woken up; they are putting their houses in order to compete and provide the quality of care that patients expect and deserve.

Watch this vintage video from a 1966 film on the use of computers in healthcare.


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