- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Say what you will about this year’s round of health reform legislation — and there’s plenty of opinion to go around — one idea nestled in much of the talk makes, I believe, a colossal amount of sense: Digitizing a person’s medical records and making that information available to the patient and other health providers.

That’s what is happening for patients of PartnerMD, a specialized practice headquartered in Richmond, with a branch in McLean, Va. “Members,” as the firm calls its clients, are assigned a physician who directs their care. The patient load and other burdens on the group’s doctors are less than in conventional practices, the firm claims, thus the level of service and attention is different, and presumably better, than what you would find at a more regular practice.

One other difference: After the initial round of pre-first visit forms, there was very little in the way of paper to be seen at the PartnerMD office. The practice is digitized in many ways, and Chief Financial Officer Stephen T. Nardo said that’s intentional. Now, that includes the use of Apple Inc.’s iPad device for physicians and nurses, while patients can elect to walk away from their exams with a USB flash drive containing their medical results.

“Ever since we’ve been in business, since 2003, we’ve been an all-electronic health records business — it’s been easy for us to have the information available for our doctors to give to the patients and hospitals when they need it,” Mr. Nardo said in a telephone interview from Richmond last week. Until recently, patients would end up with a loose-leaf notebook of report printouts; now, it can be digital instead.

“Books usually sit on the shelf,” at a patient’s home or office, Mr. Nardo said, “and if they need to have the information in an emergency, it’s still sitting on the shelf.” In contrast, the USB drive can be “carried with them in case of an emergency,” where personnel can either access the Portable Document File (PDF) formatted documents, or download the data in medical industry-standard Continuity of Care Document (CCD) or Continuity of Care Record (CCR) formats. The latter, Mr. Nardo asserted, can be critical in an emergency situation, particularly when the patient is unable to respond to questions.

There are, of course, security concerns that fall under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996, and Mr. Nardo said PartnerMD patients are asked to sign a release acknowledging that the data on the USB drives is not secure if the drive were lost. (There is a practical reason for that: If a patient was unconscious, they couldn’t give a nurse a password to access the data.)

But this is a very good and very admirable start. Windows users get a nice “front end” program on the flash drive that organizes the documents into a menu-based retrieval system. Mac users, for the moment, would need to open the file folder containing the PDF files, which, though slightly inelegant, isn’t a major burden for most Mac users.

The practice is also considering the establishment of a patient portal (something my wife’s doctors, a women’s only practice, already have) where you can log in and get the needed data. Such portals can also be used to arrange consultations and get other assistance.

The PartnerMD system, though “basic” in its use of PDF files, is, I believe, a tremendous advance over the wall-sized filing systems of paper which dominate so many medical offices. It can only be hoped that a wide range of medical practices will adopt similar, and perhaps even more advanced, means of keeping patient information available and portable, something that can only benefit people on the go.

More information about this practice can be found at www.partnermd.com.

Send e-mail to mkellner@washingtontimes.com.