Setting on course to better care

By Bernie Monegain
08:53 AM

With $220 million in hand among them, federally designated Beacon Communities across the country have begun the work of using healthcare information technology to do great things for their communities.

The idea behind the government grants is that not only will the communities benefit themselves, but also will serve as models for what other towns, cities and regions might accomplish. So Beacon Community work is practical and spiritual – practical, meaning they are intended to improve health and healthcare in a way that can be measured, and spiritual, meaning they are meant to inspire, and that, of course, is harder to measure.

The grants were awarded to communities from Maine to Hawaii. In Brewer, Maine, Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, to expand its link to the statewide health information exchange. It will also expand the use of telemedicine and patient self-management to improve care for elderly patients and individuals needing long-term or home care.

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The University of Hawaii at Hilo, Hilo, Hawaii, a rural area with a shortage of doctors and nurses, will employ Internet-based care coordination and tele-monitoring tools to increase access to specialty care for patients with chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and obesity.

Nearer the center of the country Community Services Council of Tulsa, Tulsa, Okla. will expand a care coordination system, which will increase appropriate referrals for cancer screenings, decrease unnecessary specialist visits and (with telemedicine) increase access to care for patients with diabetes.

"We can read all about how to do it, and we can read books and guidance, but I think that providers really want to see examples of how it’s working somewhere else, someplace like them,” Jonathan Teich, MD, says.

Indeed, that is the premise of the Beacon Community program. The 15 communities that received federal grants to help them in their work were handpicked from 137 applicants. The idea was to represent diversity. So there are urban and rural communities represented, with populations that often encounter healthcare disparity, including Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanic and other minority populations.

The Beacon Communities are expected to demonstrate tangible outcomes – both for individuals and the population, The program plots a true course.

To name it Beacon Community may seem cliché, but it’s apt. And, here on the Coast of Maine, where there are more than 60 lighthouses that have guided fishermen and mariners safely through thick fog and around rocky shores, “beacon” has resonance.  It’s meaningful – in a tangible and moving way.

In healthcare, which is so far behind other industries to apply digital ways of getting things done – not just to improve efficiency, but also to improve health – we can use the guidance of a beacon to help us navigate through the uncertainty. There’s also the promise of new jobs – “dozens of well-paying jobs in each community,” according to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

As Michael Nissenbaum, CEO of Aprima, told us, if we can start to control chronic diseases like hypertension, diabetes and asthma in a population, we will also get a handle on costs. “And, for the first time, we’re going to have a great ROI in our healthcare system."

The money is big. The goal is big, and the promise is big. We’ll all be watching. Soon, perhaps sooner than we think, communities elsewhere in the country will be emulating. That’s the point.

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