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Electronic Data to the Rescue

This past May, in preparing this issue’s cover package, I joined fellow editors who visited New Orleans, witnessing firsthand how a citizenry has rallied after a massive natural disaster. While parts of the city seem normal, others have been turned into large-scale ghost towns. Hundreds upon thousands of homes stand empty, their interiors gutted, destroyed by flood waters. The collective loss is too much to comprehend.

Katrina displaced some 150,000 people. However, the storm did not upend the spirit of those left behind. Leaving the “Big Easy” is out of the question for many, including Michael Hulefeld, a vice president at Ochsner Medical Center. “I feel so tied to the place and the people, I would not consider leaving,” he says. “I feel fortunate to be part of the response. It is an incredible time, both good and bad.”

Thanks in part to its electronic medical record, Ochsner parlayed some of the bad into good. Unlike their peers at paper-bound clinics, Ochsner’s physicians and nurses were able to retrieve patient histories from remote locations. Rather than depending on patients’ sketchy information, they could go straight to the best source: their own documentation. “If anybody wondered whether the EMR is essential, Katrina demonstrated that it is,” says Lynn Witherspoon, M.D., vice president and chief information officer at Ochsner.

Like the rest of the nation, New Orleans caregivers are in dire need of electronic clinical data systems. Not only are paper charts highly vulnerable, they are very difficult to share and virtually impossible to analyze. That’s one reason clinical IT is high on the agenda of the Louisiana Health Care Recovery Task Force, a state-sponsored group. “Before Katrina, healthcare here was siloed and embarrassingly dependent on paper records,” says Tulane University representative Karen DeSalvo, M.D. “The storm destroyed a legacy system, and now we have the opportunity to build a new one thoughtfully.”

Like her Ochsner peers, DeSalvo is committed to New Orleans. “I am trying to learn as much as I can so we don’t repeat mistakes,” she says. That’s advice the rest of the industry would do well to heed.

—Gary Baldwin