TriStar Health is debuting a system that electronically shares information between emergency rooms and ambulances before and after a patient’s trip to help people get better care.

Electronic information sharing that has become commonplace in almost every other industry remains unusual in health care. There’s essentially a moat between the technology system of a hospital and the emergency services agencies — not to mention other health systems.

The health data exchange will feed information from the ambulance to the TriStar Health emergency departments, and back to the EMS systems — modernizing a system that largely relies on manual communications, such as fax, phone calls and handwritten records.

It’s nearly impossible to manually bridge the gap in a way that allows emergency medical service teams to track outcomes data that could help them decide if they made the right decisions about treatment. 

“This is something I always felt like was a missing link,” said Hunter Earnest, director of EMS and trauma services at TriStar Health.

The new system will give EMS teams the chance to get feedback on patients and learn from it, said Brian Newberry, EMS chief for Wilson County Emergency Management Agency.

This is particularly important for treating patients with uncommon symptoms that those teams encounter infrequently, said Newberry. 

The data exchange also improves the way information gets added to a patient’s file. Right now, putting information in patient records requires people with EMS departments and those in the hospital to go through a complicated workflow to get information into the records. 

In addition to faxes, sometimes reports get Xeroxed or the ambulance staff leave handwritten records, which then have to be scanned and added, said Dr. Corey Slovis, chair department of emergency medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Health care has a term for systems that communicate: It’s “interoperability.” But by-and-large the industry is not interoperable. Information essentially gets stuck in the facility — or health system — where it originated.

Since information doesn’t flow between health systems, tests get repeated if a patient undergoes a test at one hospital but goes to another for a follow-up.

The exchange is just for EMS agencies that participate — there are a few that so far have elected to pay a fee to be added as users — and only for TriStar Health emergency rooms. 

The Wilson County EMS teams make about 200 runs to TriStar ERs — primarily TriStar Summit Medical Center — although the majority of its runs are to Tennova Healthcare Lebanon, which doesn’t have a similar system, said Newberry.

Health data exchanges are still a new concept, and would require each health system to use a vendor service that was compatible with its own system, and that EMS agencies could connect to. 

Health care information technology is an expensive, and often cost-prohibitive, upgrade. 

Vanderbilt University Medical Center, for example, will have the capability to add an exchange component to its system after it switches over to its new electronic health records system in November, said Slovis, who is also medical director of Metro Nashville Fire Deptartment and Nashville International Airport.

TriStar’s health data exchange is a few years in the making.

HCA, TriStar’s parent, uses a similar system in a market in Texas. Earnest said some agencies, including Wilson County, have been interested since nearly the beginning of the process. The health system is still working out some kinks and expects to bring a few more regional agencies on as partners.   

Earnest said he’s gotten inquiries from around the state from agencies interested in how the technology is working.

“if they can do it in Texas, we can do it in Tennessee,” Newberry said.

Reach Holly Fletcher at hfletcher@tennessean.com or 615-259-8287 and on Twitter @hollyfletcher.

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