Old-Fashioned Medicine Needs Assist From WiFi

fromWFIU

For years, doctors and medical professionals have proposed a paperless nationwide medical record-keeping system. Since 1992, patients in the small town of Clay City, Ind., have gradually seen their paper records become entirely computerized. Now when doctors make house calls, they need to connect to the Internet to get a patient's records.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

In the small town of Clay City, Indiana, one doctor practices medicine the old-fashioned way with cutting edge technology. Stan Jastrzebski of member station WFIU in Bloomington reports on a physician who makes house calls and depends on Wi-Fi.

STAN JASTRZEBSKI: Here in Clay City, a town of about 1,000 people, medicine has come full circle. Dr. Eric Beachy, a 30-something with salt and pepper hair and an easy bedside manner has begun making house calls, a practice residents here wrote off as old-fashioned. But Beachy's home visits are anything but that. In fact, today, the doctor is so focused on bringing his laptop that he almost forgets a low-tech tool - his stethoscope.

Ms. ANN HUMMEL(ph): Come in. Come in.

Dr. ERIC BEACHY (Physician, Clay Center for Family Medicine): Hummel, how are you?

Ms. HUMMEL: I was expecting you.

JASTRZEBSKI: Dr. Beachy is visiting Ann Hummel who has lived in Clay City her entire life. Her home is comfortable with a floral print couch and muted lighting. Hummel walks with a cane but still gets around.

Ms. HUMMEL: I don't really have to rely on this service, but if the time comes whenever I could not get to the office then I would most certainly take advantage of it.

JASTRZEBSKI: The clinic where Eric Beachy works, the Clay Center for Family Medicine, relies solely on electronic medical records. So when he visits a patient, Beachy brings a laptop that connects to a database back at the office. But in this rural area about 20 miles southeast of Terre Haute, finding that Wi-Fi connection is sometimes a challenge.

Dr. BEACHY: As long as I have a Verizon signal. There are a few places out here kind of in the boondocks where it's hard to get it. If I don't have a Verizon signal, then I can't get it.

JASTRZEBSKI: Still, Beachy says it's better than carrying around a satchel full of charts and test results.

Dr. BEACHY: When information is put into the electronic record, it's accessible from anywhere that you need it and at any time.

JASTRZEBSKI: The house call itself is routine. Hummel has her blood pressure checked...

(Soundbite of sphygmomanometer pumping)

JASTRZEBSKI: ...and Dr. Beachy asks a series of questions designed to monitor her diabetes. When he's done, Beachy can electronically fax a prescription to the patient's pharmacy of choice. In part, because of the medical record system Beachy says med students who go through a residency in Clay City to train to become rural doctors often find themselves a resource in their first practice.

Dr. BEACHY: Most of our graduates, if they're going to a place that currently is not using electronic records, they're going there hoping to change that. The docs at those practices are looking to our graduates and saying, you've used these electronic records. You know what things we need and don't need. Help us make that transition.

JASTRZEBSKI: Beachy says one of his patients, a bilateral amputee, needed to be transported by ambulance to the clinic for each checkup, and that cost hundreds of dollars per trip. With house calls, the same patient can be seen at home for a small fraction of that cost. But even as technology is allowing house calls to again become commonplace here, there are stereotypes about the practice of medicine which seemed destined to fall by the wayside.

Beachy says as more offices move to electronic medical records, the days of criticizing doctors' poor penmanship may soon be over.

Dr. BEACHY: I don't think my typing is any more difficult to read than anybody else's.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JASTRZEBSKI: For NPR News, I'm Stan Jastrzebski.

(Soundbite of music)

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, no matter where you see your doctor, he will probably be recommending that you consider getting a swine flu shot soon, if it's available. The president is among those who say that they will be waiting in turn for the vaccine. Federal health officials say the first doses may all be the nasal spray version approved for healthy people ages 2 to 49 and should be available in early October.

If you have questions about the H1N1 virus, we are getting ready to jump in with answers as the vaccine is rolled out. Just go to our Web site, npr.org and click on Contact Us. Put swine flu in the subject line of your question.

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