Flashback: Surgeon General shows how two hurricanes motivated the switch to EHRs

By Mike Miliard
04:37 PM

Originally published on September 28, 2010.

ORLANDO – Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin learned a few things in her old job running the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic in Alabama. First, the job didn't just entail "sewing up the shark bites" – there were plenty of "land sharks" (regulators and red-tape dispensers) to fend off, too. Second, EHRs are an absolute must-have.

Speaking at the 82nd annual convention and exhibit of the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) on Tuesday, Benjamin recounted her years  at the clinic she founded in 1987, in a tiny Gulf Coast shrimping village – a place where clinicians, mindful of the ever-present threat posed by the region's severe weather, took notes on patient records with waterproof ink.

In 1998, the clinic was devastated by Hurricane George. In 2005, it was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, flooded and nearly destroyed.

Benjamin showed slides of row after row of patient medical records, laid end to end drying out in the sun. "HIPAA didn't like that," she said to laughter.

Then, in 2006, just as it was set to reopen, the Bayou Clinic was destroyed by fire. To audible gasps, Benjamin showed another photo of health records reduced to blackened ash.

Upon rebuilding, Benjamin was determined. "I knew we had to find a better way," she said. "This time, we had to have an electronic health record."

Luckily, having absorbed the lessons learned by those disasters, "buy-in was never an issue," said Benjamin. "The staff was adamant."

Because, of course, implementation made sense on so many levels – enabling prescription information to be sent with the click of a button, and the ability to engage patients in their own care.

Benjamin illustrated these benefits with two touching stories of her interactions with her old patients. "I miss my patients," she confessed. "But now I have 300 million patients."

Upon adoption, EHRs at the tiny clinic made life "easier for the clinicians and better for the patients," Benjamin said – imploring that other care providers, large and small, avail themselves of those same benefits. "We have to put patients first," she said. "It is so important that we get our records in electronic format."

An added bonus? "No more waterproof pens."