B.C. plans province-wide electronic medical record system

British Columbia plans to be Canada’s leader in eHealth, once an electronic medical records system is up and running within about four years, according to the B.C. Medical Association official who co-chairs the province’s Physician Information Technology Office (PITO.)

Dr. Michael Golby, a former president of the association, said once the system is fully operational, it will be particularly valuable for patients being seen by anyone other than their own doctor.

“If I’m a physician working in a walk-in clinic or an emergency department or another clinic, it gives me access to that patient’s information if I need it: drugs, lab results, allergies, immunization — all the really important stuff,” Golby said. “So it does help very much with the care.”

The province is looking for up to six vendors to supply electronic medical records to physicians, according to a request for proposals posted on the health ministry’s section of the B.C. government’s online bidding site, BC Bid, on Feb. 19.

Bids close on April 2, at 2:00 p.m. PST.

When the system is fully operational, doctors will be able to prescribe and renew medication online, order lab tests, make referrals to specialists and administer immunizations, as well as carry out other tasks.

Golby said that among the more valuable uses of electronic medical records is when an unconscious patient arrives at an emergency department, unable to provide any medical history. Thanks to B.C.’s PharmaNet, a secure network that supplies patients’ medication history, emergency room health-care physicians can access an unconscious person’s prescription records.

“But we know nothing about patients’ allergies, about particularly what recent lab work they’ve had done — which could be really vital, really important — and any recent contact with the health care system, which could be again vital if somebody’s lying there unconscious in the emergency department,” Golby said.

He added that when physicians start using electronic records, at first it takes them longer to do the work.

“It is slower initially — a lot of change management has to happen,” Golby said.  “But if you talk to people who’ve converted, they absolutely say it saves them time and it allows them to practise better medicine.”

In addition, the system will save B.C.’s health system money, by helping avoid duplicate lab tests and X-rays, Golby said. A further benefit for patients will be the avoidance of drug interactions, he added.

Pilot projects are expected to get under way by the fall of this year, Golby said: “Then we’ll start rolling it out early next year.”

About one in 10 Canadian physicians are now using full-featured electronic medical records systems, and the proportion is likely the same in B.C., Golby said.

“It’s very exciting,” he said. “If it works the way we hope it will work, it will be a leader throughout the country, I have no doubt.”

B.C. Ministry of Health spokesperson Sarah Plank said in an interview that B.C.’s eHealth initiative is an ongoing process.

“We are gradually putting all the components in place,” Plank said.

Though the electronic medical records system is expected to save the province money over the longer term, its main goal is to improve patients’ care, she said, by putting their histories at the fingertips of health care professionals.

“If a patient has been to a different doctor, all that information is going to be there,” she said. “It will help in the management of chronic diseases, because there’s a much better accounting of what’s gone on with the patients.”

The B.C. government has allocated $107.8 million to develop an electronic medical records system between 2006 and 2012, Plank added.

The system was mentioned by Lieutenant-Governor Iona Campagnolo in her Feb. 13 Throne Speech, which said it would “give patients more control over their surgical options, improve public reporting of wait times and enable better surgical treatment planning.”

Though the system will be entirely voluntary, a majority of physicians are expected to use it.

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