North Carolina AHEC Program
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AHEC Helps Rural Physicians Embrace Trend of Using Electronic Health Records

Karen Smith, MD, and John Torontow, MD, are rural family physicians on the cutting edge of using electronic health records to improve care for their patients. Smith, a solo provider in Raeford in Hoke County, and Torontow, who practices in Siler City as a part of Piedmont Health Services, were honored at the White House on June 19 for a celebration of the nation’s more than 100,000 primary care physicians adopting electronic health records since 2009. The initiative is part of a national effort by President Barack Obama’s administration to rapidly increase the use of electronic health records in monitoring and tracking improvements in patient care.

Karen Smith, MDIn North Carolina, the AHEC Program helps doctors like Smith (photo right) and Torontow make the switch from paper records. Based at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine, AHEC administers a federally funded Regional Extension Center through its nine AHECs. The center’s 50-plus member staff helps almost 3,900 N.C. health care providers choose an electronic records system and make improvements to serving patients based on data collected through the records. Providers are required to meet federal and state standards for meaningful use of the electronic records to receive incentive payments.

“The adoption of electronic medical records by medical providers is a very complicated process,” said Torontow. “Most practices will completely change the way they do everything to accommodate their new computer systems. This task alone is difficult enough, but in order to receive the federal stimulus money they must meet federal requirements for ‘meaningful use.’ That is a lot to worry about for a private practice already running on a very thin margin.” He said AHEC helps physician practices with the vendor selection process, practice redesign and documenting quality measures after implementation. “I cannot stress enough the value of their services,” Torontow said. “The information that they have provided to our organization has helped us move forward and to better understand what is involved in the meaningful use incentives.”

Nationally, more than 100,000 health-care providers have been paid under the Medicare and Medicaid electronic health record incentive programs, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. The 100,000 goal was first proposed in a blog last March that declared 2012 the “Year of Meaningful Use.” Refer to http://blog.cms.gov/2012/03/23/2012-the-year-of-meaningful-use/.

In North Carolina, AHEC is unique in connecting quality improvement coaches with providers to help them use electronic data to provide better care for chronically ill patients and build practice systems that qualify for National Committee for Quality Assurance patient-centered medical home recognition, said Samuel Cykert, MD, of NC AHEC.

The national recognition program gives medical practices information about organizing care around patients, working in teams and coordinating and tracking care over time using means including information technology to improve patient care.

As a solo provider practice in Raeford, Dr. Karen L. Smith has worked with AHEC’s quality initiative since 2009 and is a graduate of the AHEC family medicine residency program. Her practice received the national recognition in 2010. “Dr. Smith is truly an advocate for providing quality care and is a leader among her peers,” said Jennifer Borton, quality improvement consultant for Southern Regional AHEC in Fayetteville.