By Contributor | Published November 11, 2017

By Daniel Porreca and Anthony J. Billittier IV Special to The News

As has been well reported, one Sunday morning in April, the entire computer network at Erie County Medical Center was suddenly shut down due to a cybersecurity attack. While the hospital’s IT team immediately worked to bring its system back online, hospital staff quickly switched back to a manual and completely paper-based system to maintain patient care.

Although this incident is yet one more example of an ever-growing number of criminal cyberattacks, it revealed a somewhat surprising additional added value from HEALTHeLINK, Western New York’s health information exchange (HIE).

Fortunately, ECMC was already a HEALTHeLINK data source prior to the outage and had been uploading its patient care data to HEALTHeLINK for quite some time so other health care organizations could provide even better care of common patients. This forward thinking on ECMC’s part proved to pay dividends. While this cyberattack prevented ECMC staff from accessing its own electronic patient records directly, ECMC’s patient information was still readily available by connecting to HEALTHeLINK. HEALTHeLINK essentially proved to be ECMC’s backup system!

Partnering with the hospital’s IT department, HEALTHeLINK staff spent the first 24 hours and the following days enabling secure access to HEALTHeLINK data for care providers and medical staff to ensure patient health information was available to support patient care.

HEALTHeLINK was formed more than 10 years ago as a collaborative effort by the region’s major hospital systems and health plans to securely exchange clinical information among treating providers to improve quality of care, enhance patient safety and mitigate rising health care costs. The ECMC outage is just one example of how HEALTHeLINK is working to accomplish these goals.

While an outage is a worst-case scenario, we hear every day how HEALTHeLINK is successfully being utilized. Participating physician practices and hospitals safely and securely obtain and make patient health information available, thus providing as big a clinical picture as possible.

With more and more providers contributing patient data and an increasing number of patients consenting to have their records accessed, it has become easier for doctors to securely obtain patient health information through HEALTHeLINK. Even with these significant accomplishments, there is still more work to do. Deeper adoption is needed by the health care community to reach the full potential of HIE and its positive impact on health care in Western New York.

While all hospitals in the eight counties of Western New York and more than 80 percent of physician practices are currently HEALTHeLINK participants, their active use varies. To truly realize the full benefit to patient care, physicians and medical staff need to routinely and fully integrate use into their daily workflows.

The role of patients is very simple. They only need to authorize HEALTHeLINK consent when asked, and inquire if not asked for consent. To date, more than 1 million Western New Yorkers have signed a consent form. Once consent is obtained, HEALTHeLINK works silently behind the scenes improving their health care.

This virtual sharing of important medical information is occurring not only here in Western New York. There are seven other HIEs similar to HEALTHeLINK blanketing New York State. All eight HIEs are, in turn, connected together and make up the Statewide Health Information Network for New York (SHIN-NY). Further, an initiative is being led by the Strategic Health Information Exchange Collaborative that will eventually connect SHIN-NY to similar HIEs in other states.

From both provider and patient perspectives, the value of having more complete patient health information at the point of care cannot be overstated. HEALTHeLINK, with the continued collaboration of the health care community, has made this a reality. However, this collaborative of interconnected electronic health information can only deliver maximal value if the entire community gets behind it. All patients must consent to information access, and all health care providers must both contribute medical information from their electronic medical record systems, as well as use medical information available from this regional network.

Daniel Porreca is executive director of HEALTHeLINK. Anthony J. Billittier IV, M.D., FACEP, is an emergency physician with UBMD at Erie County Medical Center and chief medical officer of Millennium Collaborative Care. He also serves on HEALTHeLINK’s board of directors.


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