Earlier this year we marked the first anniversary in a landmark collaboration that is already achieving major milestones on the road to better care through sharing electronic medical records (EMRs). The collaboration involves five leading health systems, each of which is in the forefront of using such records and is committed to the secure exchange of electronic health data. Together, Intermountain Healthcare (based in Utah), Geisinger Health System (Pennsylvania), Group Health Cooperative (Washington), Kaiser Permanente (California), and Mayo Clinic (Minnesota) have created the Care Connectivity Consortium to pioneer the effective connectivity of electronic patient information in a way that fully protects patient privacy.

The significance of this collaboration is, in part, that its goal is the secure sharing of patient information regardless of the vendor used to create the electronic medical records in the first place. This means addressing, in technical terms, “vendor-agnostic modalities”.

Individual vendors have long claimed that their proprietary systems can share data, but that depends on the extent to which those systems have been customized along the way. In addition, the patient has no idea what EMR vendor his or her hospital uses. The patient should simply be able to authorize in advance the sharing of data by any healthcare providers chosen.

Developing, testing, and implementing that goal requires collaboration across multiple, different, EMR systems and doing it with sufficient mass that it can be scaled nationally. That’s what this collaboration is doing. The five healthcare systems involved have extraordinary geographic reach across many states and large volumes of patients.

As nonprofit organizations, they are willing to tackle this challenge – and bear the costs internally. It’s an investment that they know will pay off in better care for their patients and fewer medical errors because crucial medical records will be available when needed.

As an emergency room physician, I know first-hand the value of access to patient information. In one recent case, a man visiting Salt Lake City for a ski trip developed chest discomfort, confusion, and trouble breathing and was brought to an Intermountain Healthcare facility by ambulance. No one was with him, and his confusion prevented him from providing meaningful information. He was acutely ill, but there was a wide variety of possible causes for his illness, and insight into his medical history, medications, and previous testing would have been extremely valuable.

Our exams found that he had a severe case of pneumonia that required prompt and aggressive therapy. When I learned that he had previously received care in another Intermountain Healthcare hospital hundreds of miles away, I was able within a few minutes to access his current medication list and allergies. His electronic medical record showed that he was taking a medication that thins the blood that also has significant interactions with other medications including antibiotics. Knowing this, I was able to give him the right antibiotic quickly and to avoid a significant and preventable medical error. The goal of the Care Connectivity Consortium is to enable this kind of instant, secure and effective access of critical medical information so that all of our patients can be treated safely and promptly.

The sharing of electronic medical records will signal a new era in patient-centered care. It will give the patient control over that data, which was previously controlled by the provider. It will enable the patient to move the data easily from one provider to another. It will allow the patient to ensure that more than one provider in a particular community has access to the data.

A patient living in a community with more than one emergency room could, for instance, give advance consent so that every emergency room in that community would have access to needed records. Similarly, a patient planning a trip could provide advance access to a provider in the travel destination.

Electronic medical information is one of the most important care support tools available in healthcare today. The five member institutions of the Care Connectivity Consortium now have the ability to quickly access across their systems invaluable information about any of their patients’ medications, allergies, and health conditions, allowing them to provide the right kind of treatment at the right time. One of the challenges still being addressed is how best to obtain a patient’s advance consent, store it properly and ensure that it’s readily accessible in the event of an emergency visit to another care provider.

The Care Connectivity Consortium is making great strides in ensuring that the benefits of electronic medical records are available to patients in settings beyond those of their current provider. It’s an essential undertaking that will lead to better, safer, and more cost-effective care in all of the venues in which care is provided to the ill and the injured.