MANATEE -- Physicians at Manatee Memorial Health Systems can soon forgot about the old pen and pad.
The company's Bradenton and Lakewood Ranch hospitals are on the last leg of a two-year overhaul that will entirely digitize patent record keeping, while integrating all of its order-entry and lab systems into one program.
The transformation is part of a move by hospitals across the country to comply with requirements of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as President Obama's health care reform.
When complete, the new computer system will eliminate the myriad errors that could arise from a patient's check-in through hospital discharge, says Troy Beaubien, director of information services for Manatee Memorial.
"It has been a substantial investment in time and energy," he said. "But it's already paid off considerably."
While other private businesses have been leveraging technology to improve operations for decades now, the health care industry has been slow to keep pace.
Written into the health care overhaul, the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act is designed to bring hospitals into the 21st century.
The requirements start with basic record-keeping and expand to cover the whole gamut of patient care. The idea is to have a digital records system that's eventually transparent and compatible with each health-care provider.
For Manatee Memorial's parent, Universal Health Services Inc., the corporate process began more than two years ago. The efforts will cost an estimated $150 million.
Lakewood Ranch Medical Center and Manatee Memorial Hospital were two of the first facilities among the corporation's 23 acute care hospitals in the United States to go digital, Beaubien said.
At this time in 2009, Manatee Memorial had upwards of 15 separate computer programs for services like radiology, lab and pharmacy -- each with a different company.
All patient notes were transcribed by hand, then passed into Manatee Memorial's computer system for digital keeping upon a patient's release.
Now Kansas City-based Cerner Corp. handles all of that with one integrated product.
Physicians can remotely access the system to keep track of a patient's progress from home. Records can be easily verified through multiple sources. Mistakes, limited.
The last piece to the puzzle is the order-entry system -- a portable work
station where providers enter information though a computer right from the patient's side.
The program is now being used in the emergency room and by primary care physicians. The final stage is surgeons and other smaller disciplines, which are slated to join in the second quarter of 2013, Beaubien said.
While some older doctors have been reluctant to change the way they have been doing things since medical school, everyone is now starting to come around, he said.
"The good thing about it is everything is seamless," Beaubien said. "That's been a big change in procedure for us, and it has proved to be everything we hoped it would."
Blake Medical Center, a competing hospital in Bradenton, also is moving forward with the transition to digital records. But the hospital didn't provide many details in terms of where that process stands.
"We have had electronic medication records for many years," Blake spokeswoman Stephanie Petta said. "Last year we implemented computer provider order entry along with the other 13 Meaningful Use core requirements."
Industry experts say the change has been a long time coming. Aside from basic efficiencies, the new digital platforms will accelerate clinical trials, increase doctor accountability and give patients a better understanding of their own care, said Jonathan Fleece, a health care attorney with the Blalock Walters law firm in Bradenton.
Fleece, who also chairs the Manatee Health Care Alliance, authored a book on issues in the medical industry, including the need for digital record-keeping, entitled "The New Health Age: The Future of Health Care in America." He believes the digital component is one of the most crucial pieces of the country's health care reform.
As of 2011, 55 percent of U.S. physicians had adopted some type of electronic records system, up 10 percentage points from 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "This will help improve overall health care because everything is connected," Fleece said.
"Think of it like banking, where you can walk into a California bank and access all of your information even if your home branch is in Florida. In health care, you previously have not been able to do that."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.