Information exchange hailed as a way to meet needs

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Dick Thompson

Dick Thompson tells stories that illustrate why the cost of health care isn’t just about doctors, hospitals or drugs.

There’s the story about the woman who can’t bring her diabetes under control. The reason? She doesn’t stick to her treatment regimen because she has no refrigerator to chill her insulin.

Then there’s the story about the man who repeatedly showed up an emergency room with vague complaints about head pain and depression. The reason? He knew he could get regular meals at the hospital.

Thompson, executive director and chief executive officer of the Quality Health Network (QHN) based in Grand Junction, said the stories offer examples of the social determinants that affect well-being. The stories also illustrate the importance of efforts to develop a community information exchange to help people get the services they need.

Drawing on its expertise in developing a health information exchange in Western Colorado, QHN plans to soon launch a pilot program for its Community Resource Network (CRN).

The effort already has gained recognition in a national competition. The CRN is one of five semifinalists in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Social Determinants of Health Innovation Challenge. The CRN received $5,000 and advances to the second phase of a competition in which the winner will receive $50,000.

“I think it’s a huge accolade for our community, for everyone who’s involved,” Thompson said.

The innovation challenge seeks to find digital solutions that help health care providers and those at risk connect to services, including those that meet medical as well as behavioral and social needs. Addressing such needs as housing and food has been shown to improve health care outcomes and costs.

Thompson said the CRN will offer a secure exchange that includes information about people and their unique circumstances and needs, available resources to meet those needs and who can deliver those resources.

The goal, he said, is to improve the efficacy of those efforts. “Individuals will get what they need faster and, I would say, better and faster.”

The CRN will build on the information QHN shares through its health information exchange.

QHN was established in 2004 as a community partnership to improve the quality and lower the cost of health care in Western Colorado. What developed out of that effort was a secure exchange that shares electronic health records among hospitals, medical practices and public health departments in 20 counties in the region.

Thompson said the exchange connects 3,500 users, including 100 percent of the hospitals in the region and 94 percent of other health care providers.

The goal, he said, is to have readily available the same information for a patient whether that’s at a hospital, doctor’s office or other location.

The exchange ensures a better continuity of care while avoiding the duplication of tests and treatments. In the process, the exchange fulfills the original mission of QHN in improving the quality and lowering the cost of health care, he said.

The same technology can be used for the CRN in addressing other issues that effect the well-being of people, Thompson said.

Social determinants include education, employment, access to food and housing and transportation. Together, they can account for up to 80 percent of the factors affecting health, he said.

The CRN will provide a three-pronged approach to helping people, Thompson said.

First, the exchange will offer a snapshot of an individual, including family and housing situations as well as information about any resources sought in the past and who’s been contacted to request services.

Second, the exchange will offer information about available resources that can meet needs and fill gaps.

Third, the exchange will offer information about the appropriate agencies and organizations to contact to arrange for assistance or schedule appointments.

In some cases, just providing transportation can make a difference in helping people, Thompson said.

People must consent to provide information for the network. But Thompson expects they’ll be willing to do so if they can access services more quickly.

The QHN plans to soon launch a pilot program for the CRN in Mesa County, then expand the exchange to other areas of Western Colorado, he said.

The CRN offers a more proactive approach to addressing the social determinants that affect well-being and in turn lower health care costs, Thompson said.

The CRN also could help keep people out of hospitals for issues not directly to health care, he said, including the lack of a refrigerator or access to food.