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Area doctors who participated in a three-year, federally funded study of electronic medical records found an improvement in the health of their diabetic patients, project leaders announced Thursday.

The Buffalo Niagara region in 2010 received a $16.1 million federal stimulus grant – the largest of 17 “Beacon Community” grants awarded nationally – to study whether converting records to an electronic format can enhance the monitoring of patient health and the coordination of medical treatment.

The more than 300 doctors who took part in the program found that upgrading their information-technology systems helped their patients better control their blood sugar levels and reduced the number of avoidable hospitalizations, according to a final program report.

“I would say it met our expectations. We have high expectations for what technology can do,” said Daniel E. Porreca, executive director of HEALTHeLINK, the main group that is linking local patients, doctors and insurers into electronic medical records, or EMRs. “We expected to find that impact on care, and we’re starting to see the evidence.”

The Western New York Beacon project was a partnership among HEALTHeLink, Catholic Medical Partners, P2 Collaborative of Western New York and more than 40 other health care organizations.

The participants say the benefits shown for care of diabetics could be repeated for those with congestive heart failure, depression and other conditions.

“You have to get the data, and you have to get it in the right format to be used, and it has to be as comprehensive as possible,” said Dennis R. Horrigan, president and CEO of Catholic Medical Partners, the physicians group affiliated with Catholic Health.

Federal officials announced in May 2010 that Buffalo Niagara would receive one of 17 Beacon grants, allowing HEALTHeLink and its partners to expand on the region’s ongoing efforts to convert patient data from paper to electronic formats.

The local Beacon project worked with 344 primary care physicians at 98 practices to improve their information technology infrastructure

The study used electronic health records to generate diabetes registries that better track lab tests and results and help doctors better offer preventive care to their patients. About 40,000 patients were registered through the study, Porreca said.

Electronic records can efficiently alert doctors, for example, to a patient who has missed a follow-up appointment with a specialist, Porreca said, and doctors from different practices can more easily compare the health and treatment of their diabetic patients.

“You can’t do the type of analysis we’re talking about with paper,” he said.

Among the 57 practices that used electronic registries consistently over a one-year period, study organizers said, the percentage of diabetes patients who had uncontrolled blood sugar levels improved by 4 percent – and some practices saw an improvement of 10 percent.

The practices promoted through the Beacon project also prevented three avoidable hospitalizations for every 100 diabetes patients, marking a savings of about $600 annually per patient, in 2012.

If this could be duplicated broadly around the region, hospitals could save as much as $18 million per year if just 20 percent of the estimated number of diabetics and their doctors followed these practices.

Another pilot program within the study encouraged greater telemonitoring of 144 diabetes patients, allowing the patients to report remotely the results of their in-home testing of blood sugar, weight and other metrics. This information was tracked by home health care agencies and provided to physicians through HEALTHeLink.

The project was funded by the federal Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. The full report can be viewed at www.wnybeacon.com.

email: swatson@buffnews.com