In the days following last month's devastating tornado in Joplin, Mo., one of the reports widely shared locally was news of X-rays having been blown all the way to Springfield, some 70 miles away.
The hospital that lost those X-rays, St. John's Regional Medical Center, was badly damaged by the storm and has been shut down. But it still has its patient records intact. The hospital had completed its conversion to electronic health records on May 1 — three weeks before the storm.
A mobile field hospital has been set up in the St. John's parking lot, complete with CT scans and surgical theaters. And St. John's patients going to facilities elsewhere are finding that their prescriptions and treatment schedules are available to providers.
"The bottom line is, if we didn't have the electronic health records, we would not be back operational today," says Mike McCreary, chief of technology services for the Sisters of Mercy Health System, which runs St. John's.
Electronic health records have been seen as a tool to cut down both on costs and medical errors. They've been a priority for the Obama administration - witness the $19 billion devoted to health IT in the 2009 stimulus package.
Still, physicians continue to resist altering the way they've done things in the past. It's not just about changing the way patient encounters are documented, but changing the entire work flow of a practice.
Once providers do go electronic and gain some comfort with the process, however, they never seem to want to go back.
"There's a lot of angst in converting, there are security concerns," says Tony Rysinski, senior vice president of marketing for Sage Healthcare, an electronic records vendor. "We've found that once people have converted, those concerns are minimized."
The experience in Joplin suggests that patient records may be more securely preserved electronically than on paper or on film. But you still need power to access them.
"That night, we traded 500 patients in the first few hours," says a spokeswoman for Freeman Health System, Joplin's other hospital. "St. John's had their electronic medical records, but we were taking patient information by hand because the power was down."