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Utah doctors are among the most "wired," boasting the nation's fifth highest adoption rate of electronic medical records.
Nearly 74 percent of the state's health clinics are paperless with basic or fully functional IT systems compared to 51 percent nationally, according to a new national poll by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Minnesota, home to the highly touted Mayo Clinic, is No. 1 with 80 percent of its doctor offices digitized, followed by Massachusetts, Wisconsin and North Dakota.
States with the lowest adoption rates are Kentucky, Louisiana and Florida.
The data released on Thursday come from annual polls of providers done by the American Hospital Association and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
The results show a reversal of the former low interest in electronic medical charting driven largely by billions in new financial incentives and penalties, said David Blumenthal the national coordinator for Health Information Technology.
In just one year, between 2009 and 2010, the percentage of physicians who say they have fully functional systems grew by 46 percent, the survey found.
Financial incentives delivered through Medicaid and Medicare are intended to help offset start-up costs.
All it takes for a doctor to qualify for the money now is to electronically report aggregate patient data. But down the road, doctors will have to show they're using the data to improve care.
Getting there will likely take years, say health IT experts.
"There are a lot of technical challenges to upgrading data systems, many of which have been sort of patched together," said Jan Root, CEO and president of the Utah Health Information Network, a data superhighway that allows health providers and hospitals to exchange information about patients.
"But the good news is doctors are getting really excited about this," Root said. "It's not a good day for a doctor who inadvertently harms a patient who didn't tell the doctor he or she was allergic to a given drug."
And Utah has a lead on other states, in part due to large grants received to push providers into the paperless realm, said Sharon Donnelly, vice president of health IT strategy at HealthInsight. "We were one of the first four states to get federal funds."
The nonprofit HealthInsight is responsible for dispensing some of those funds to small clinics that need help with their IT upgrades.
"We're lucky because our large integrated health systems like Intermountain Healthcare and the University of Utah have seen this as really important and invested a lot of money already," said Donnelly. Federal, low-income clinics, shouldering much of the medical needs in some rural parts of Utah, are also ahead of the pack.
"In other states, the gap is in rural areas. We haven't seen that in Utah," said Donnelly, noting the slowest adoption rates are among pediatric and family practice offices that operate close to the margins and older physicians.