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BCBSNC To Help 750 Docs Go Digital

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Wednesday said it will spend $15 million helping independent physicians and free health clinics go high-tech. By now patients at big medical practices and hospitals in North Carolina are used to having their intimate health details typed into a computer during check-ups. But the majority of independent physicians - and virtually all of the state's free clinics - are still using old-fashioned paper to track patient health, says Dr. Sam Cykert. Cykert directs a government program meant to help small practices adopt electronic health records through the NC Area Health Education Centers. Cost is the primary barrier for small practices and nonprofit clinics to implement electronic health records systems. Cykert says electronic records software can cost tens of thousands of dollars to install and maintain "If you don't have the training of how to incorporate these records and you don't have the upfront money to buy them, that puts up a big brick wall," says Cykert. So Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina is partnering with software-maker Allscripts to cover the majority of those costs for about 750 physicians who work mainly in rural areas or in free health clinics. After five years, the physicians and free clinics will be have to foot the bill for software upgrades, training and support. But Jason Baisden of the North Carolina Association of Free Clinics says, "the cost of not doing it overrides that in the long-run." Studies suggest clinics that use electronic records are better able to track the health of their patients and share information with other doctors when a patient needs special care or hospitalization. Baisden says about half of the state's 79 free clinics will be able to go electronic thanks to the Blue Cross and Blue Shield donation. That will also put free clinics and rural doctors first in line to plug into a statewide health information exchange North Carolina is building with federal stimulus funds. "We thought we might be the last ones on, and having the ability to be the first ones on, is substantial," says Baisden. Blue Cross Blue Shield says the money is well-spent to improve efficiency and bring down costs in the overall health care system. A spokeswoman for the insurance company says the $15 million expense will not have a direct impact on customer premiums.