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Intermountain Healthcare on Wednesday announced a "historic collaboration" to securely share patient data with four of the nation's leading health systems.

The e-health partnership includes Intermountain in Utah; Geisinger Health System in Pennsylvania; Group Health Cooperative in Washington state; Kaiser Permanente in California; and the Mayo Clinics in Minnesota, Florida and Arizona.

The first data exchange won't happen until later this year and it will start small, said Marc Probst, Intermountain's chief information officer, who pegs Intermountain's investment at $1 million.

And while the five hospital systems see patients from all 50 states, they don't overlap much geographically, making it unlikely that they share many patients.

But at a news conferences on Wednesday, officials from the hospital groups said the partnership brings greater clout to health-information technology and will help set data-sharing standards. And one day, it may indeed aid in emergencies in which having quick access to information about a patient's allergies and underlying health problems speeds care, saves money by avoiding unnecessary and duplicate tests and saves lives.

"That's really how we'll measure success of this initiation, in saved lives," said Todd Allen, an emergency physician at Intermountain Medical Center [IMC] in Murray.

Intermountain digitized its records 40 years ago and it has been using data to drive care for 20 years, said Allen. He cited the example of a male patient who late last month came by ambulance to IMC disoriented and complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath.

The man had been skiing and staying overnight at Canyons Ski Resort, said Allen. "There were a number of possible causes." Thankfully, he had been a patient at another Intermountain hospital in southern Utah, which enabled Allen to access his medical history instantly on the hospitals' computer network.

"We found out he was on medications that significantly thin your blood and had an allergy to antibiotics" — critical information considering his diagnosis of pneumonia, said Allen.

But sharing must-have vitals with non-Intermountain hospitals is another matter altogether, said Allen, pointing to a patient whose records took six hours to secure from another Utah hospital last weekend.

"Minutes do matter. They matter with heart and stroke patients and they matter with disease," said Allen. "We have to do better. We can do better. Patients are nomadic ... and their health problems, complicated. We can't rely on carrier pigeons to exchange information."

Obama's signature health overhaul contains billions in grants to help health organizations build IT systems and eventually connect to an interstate data superhighway. The Office of the National Coordinator and the National Health Information Network have laid out standards for data sharing.

"But those standards are voluntary," said Dawn Milliner, chief medical officer of the Mayo Clinic in a video press briefing. "Right now every state has their own rules and regulations. Every one requires different kinds of patient consent and each group is using a different approach to the type of data they share, making this very complicated for any health system that cares for patients in more than one state."

The collaboration will adhere to national standards but perhaps more importantly, take them for a test-drive in the hopes of identifying and resolving technical and legal barriers, said Probst.

One area of particular concern for Intermountain is patient privacy, said Probst. Patients must explicitly grant permission before Intermountain will share their information, he said. How they consent and whether they can change their minds or agree to release only certain information are some of the finer points that need to be worked out, said Probst.

Three of the hospital groups, including Intermountain, have insurance arms. But Probst said the collaborative does not signal an interest in going national or expanding into other markets.

Said George Halvorson, chairman and chief executive officer of Kaiser Permanente, "This collaborative effort exists because we all have reached the same important conclusion about linking and sharing patient-specific data."