Email link lures health providers

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Nearly 3,500 health care providers -- from hospitals to physicians to labs to pharmacies -- have signed up for a secure email service that will allow them to swap patient information, a first step in building a statewide exchange.

The service, called DIRECT mail, is essentially a closed, encrypted email system. The technology allows for health records, lab results, X-rays and other diagnostic imaging to be sent securely from one provider to another.

"It's a very easy way for the clinicians to dip their toes into the world of health information technology," said Alix Goss, program director for the Pennsylvania eHealth Collaborative, the state agency charged with building the statewide data exchange and spending the $17.1 million in seed money that Pennsylvania was given through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

Many health experts believe that patient data exchanges will lead to better, and more efficient, care by allowing disparate health and hospital systems to communicate with each other, and allowing a patient's data to be accessible to the wide universe of health providers.

It eventually will replace the 20th-century infrastructure -- mail, faxes and phone calls -- that many clinicians still use to seek and obtain patient data, Ms. Gross said.

Physicians from 10 Pennsylvania hospitals are included among the 3,449 health providers who signed up for the DIRECT mail program, Ms. Goss said.

From May through October, the Pennsylvania eHealth Collaborative paid IT vendors $250 for each provider that signed up for the service, which pays for one year of email. In all, the collaborative will dole out $862,000.

The closed email system -- which can be accessed via Web browser, or through a client-based system, much like Microsoft Outlook -- is used instead of a public, commercial email service (such as Gmail or Hotmail) because "they are more likely to be hacked," said Johnny Allen, a business and operations manager for the collaborative.

In the parlance of those who use the exchanges, DIRECT is a "push" system, in which two providers can swap information. More complex, and still many months away, is a statewide "pull," or query, system, through which an emergency room in Philadelphia can retrieve all of the medical records of a car accident victim who lives in Pittsburgh.

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Bill Toland: btoland@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.


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