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Montana Works Toward Unified Medical Records Database

Gov. Steve Bullock signs an executive order, Sept. 4, 2019 declaring Big Sky Care Connect Montana's single state-designated health information exchange entity.
Corin Cates-Carney
Montana Public Radio
Gov. Steve Bullock signs an executive order, Sept. 4, 2019 declaring Big Sky Care Connect Montana's single state-designated health information exchange entity.

A virtual network of patient medical records is under construction by state officials and a newly formed organization in Montana’s health care industry. Gov. Steve Bullock announced Wednesday that $19 million in federal funding is backing the developing information exchange.

Big Sky Care Connect is Montana’s latest attempt to link health care providers so they can more efficiently share patient medical information.

Jonathan Griffin, Chief Medical Innovation Officer at St. Peter’s Health, in Helena, says medical records are not kept the same way by all health care providers. And that can make treatment decisions difficult.

"If I’m taking care of a patient in a nursing home, it’s not okay for me to have three or four differnt records systems up in front of me at one time to try to piece together the history of a very sick person who needs me to be making the best, most informed decisions possible."

Griffin says Big Sky Care Connect will be a bridge that links pharmacies, urgent care clinics, nursing homes, hospitals, and other providers so they can all share patient data. The idea is this will lead to better coordination between health care providers, and eliminate redundant tests and procedures, resulting in lower health care costs.

Griffin sits on the medical information network's board of directors, which is predominantly made up of health care executives from across the state.

Many of the board members gathered at St. Peter’s for a press conference Wednesday announcing the latest step in the system’s development.

Through an executive order, Gov. Bullock designated Big Sky Care Connect as Montana’s single health care information network.

"Montanans can soon look forward to a complete transformation in the way that care is delivered," Bullock says.

The $19 million from the Federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to help with the system’s startup costs must be matched with 10 percent of the costs from the state or private funds.

This is not Montana’s first attempt at creating a statewide network of share patient data.

"It's the second attempt. I think it’s probably the right attempt," says Bob Janicek, vice-president of Network Operations at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana.

In the mid 2000s, Montana health industry officials envisioned a similar kind of information exchange to pass medical data from provider to provider. However that program, HealthShare Montana, failed to get off the ground.

Janicek says back then the technology to create the system wasn’t fully developed. And he says there were funding disagreements between health care providers who couldn’t agree on how to use what he described as a "frankensteined" system.

The Board of Directors of Big Sky Care Connect says it will cost $50 million over four years to connect every physician in the state to the system -- and participation isn’t mandatory.

Marc Lassaux is the Chief Technical Officer with Quality Health Network (QHN), in Colorado. QHN runs a health information exchange between 14 hospitals and many of the medical providers and health care organizations in western Colorado.

Lassaux says the successes of these kinds of medical record sharing platforms is now less about technological gaps and more about getting people to work together.

"Its a awful lot and more about people and relationships. And getting people to understand what they are trying to achieve and how they want to share information with each other effectively and securely."

He says to start a large data-sharing network, in this case containing patient medical history, it helps to have a few big hospitals or providers join first.

"The more information in the network, the more value it has to all providers, and that really helps with growth."

Big Sky Care Connect is scheduled to begin signing up providers to join it’s network of patient data later this year.

Officials with the new non-profit say the organization expects to hire a vendor to run the data network this month.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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