Electronic patient files coming in 2020, says P.E.I.'s health minister

Nearly two decades after the P.E.I. government developed its first plan to create electronic health records, a system to connect doctors’ offices and their files should be developed in 2020, according to Minister of Health and Wellness James Aylward.

Long-awaited move will transform patient care, Medical Society of P.E.I. says

During the fall sitting of the legislature, P.E.I.'s health minister said electronic health records would be fully functioning across the province within the next 10 months. (Nir Elias/Reuters)

Nearly two decades after the P.E.I. government developed its first plan to move Islanders' health records into the digital realm, a system to connect doctors' offices and their files should be developed in 2020, according to Minister of Health and Wellness James Aylward.

The province earmarked $9.5 million for electronic medical records in its capital budget for 2020-21. That's in addition to tens of millions already spent on this file since the Department of Health included the establishment of electronic records in its strategic plan in 2001.

What government considers the "foundation" of the electronic health record system was completed in 2011 — a clinical information system linking Island hospitals and allowing them to exchange information in real time.

The piece that's missing is the connection to the offices of primary care providers like family doctors and nurse practitioners.

Dr. David Bannon, president of the Medical Society of P.E.I., says electronic medical records, once implemented, will transform the way Island doctors provide care for their patients. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

That link-up would allow the two-way exchange of information within an individual, electronic patient file. 

Details from physician offices including visit history and clinicians' notes could be sent into the system, while doctors would gain access to things like diagnostic images and prescription information, items already included in the electronic health record system.

Creating that link will have a "significant impact on how we deliver health care to patients," said Dr. David Bannon, the president of the Medical Society of P.E.I. 

Previous pilot 'flatly rejected' by doctors, minister says

During the fall sitting of the legislature, Aylward said a pilot program initiated under the previous Liberal administration was "flatly rejected by the physicians that did the pilot."

Since then he said the new government has pressed the reset button on electronic medical records.

"We have full expectations that we will have a fully functioning EMR Island-wide within the next 10 months," he told the House.

CBC asked Health PEI and the Department of Health for more information about the cost of the pilot and why it was cancelled, but no information was provided.

Bannon said that pilot "ultimately didn't meet the needs of the caregivers or the system. And so we moved on from it. We learned from those experiences and it's part of what we bring to the table now."

In the absence of a uniform electronic system, Bannon said some doctors have implemented their own electronic records systems, while others continue to use paper files.

Everyone using the same files

One benefit of having a single uniform record system is that information could be instantly available no matter where an Island patient presents themselves: with their family doctor, at the ER or at a walk-in clinic.

"You're going to get to the point where any encounter that you have with health caregivers on this Island, you're going to be drawing from the same accurate medical record that everybody has access to including the patients."

The health minister, meanwhile, said a lack of electronic medical records has made it more difficult for the province to recruit new doctors.

Health Minister James Aylward says a previous electronic health record pilot project was scrapped because it was 'flatly rejected' by the doctors involved. The province has not disclosed the cost of that pilot. (Al MacCormick/CBC )

"You have health-care professionals coming out of a residency program, out of medical school and they're looking at P.E.I. as an option and they find out you don't have [electronic medical records]," said Aylward.

"They're like, 'You know what. I'm not really interested in going back to the old paper and pen files.'"

Mounting costs

CBC asked government for a current estimate of how much the province has spent developing electronic health records, but no figure was provided.

Former auditor general Colin Younker pegged the cost at $33.1 million as of March 31, 2009, in a report critical of the development of a records system up until that point. That amount included some costs paid for by Ottawa and through local hospital foundations, with the net cost to the province listed as $15.6 million.

A government document from 2014 pegged the total cost at that point at more than $45 million.

Meanwhile, the province has included annual expenses of more than $5 million in its operating budget to pay for "development, implementation and support for the integrated electronic health record" going back at least as far as 2009.

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Kerry Campbell

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Kerry Campbell is the provincial affairs reporter for CBC P.E.I., covering politics and the provincial legislature.