When Catholic Charities began planning to roll out a new electronic health record system across the agency, Ezra Buchdahl thought about the chart room at St. Vincent’s Villa.

“We’re living in the 19th century here!” said the administrator of the comprehensive residential treatment program and special education school for children with behavioral and emotional needs. He described the room tucked into the nursing health suite as a place where “some kids have literally three huge binders full of their medical and clinical history.”

The shift to electronic health records won’t eliminate the binders – “some of our regulatory bodies still want to see things on paper,” Buchdahl explained – but it is part of a broader move that will smooth communications across care providers, help those providers make better clinical decisions, and improve the efficiency of Catholic Charities’ operations.

After exploring various options for more than a year, Catholic Charities rolled out the new electronic system in early August, choosing a company called Streamline Healthcare, which specializes in organizations delivering behavioral health services.

Keeping up with staff

The agency’s 11 outpatient clinics shifted to electronic records years ago, but residential and educational programs maintained paper records for various reasons. Even at the clinics, the old electronic system could not always keep up with staff, who are increasingly mobile. As they started reaching further into the community to meet clients not only at clinics, but also in their own neighborhoods, the need for a more agile, web-based system grew ever more apparent.

“We need to do anything we can to remove the barriers to care,” said Kevin Keegan, director of the agency’s Family Services Division. “By our staff being able to be mobile, it simply makes it easier for the consumer to receive the services they need.”

The new system needed to account for that kind of mobility – allowing staff members to enter and access secure data from anywhere – serve the needs of both residential and outpatient programs, and ensure for an easy, efficient and secure transfer of patient information.

Keegan offered the example of a child in an outpatient program who needed to shift into a residential facility for a time.

“Now, a clinician in a residential center would be able to access the child’s outpatient records without having to send over the documents,” he said. “In terms of continuity of care, that’s really the benefit for us.”

A two-stage roll-out

The roll-out of the electronic health records has been a two-stage process.

“The ‘go-live’ for outpatient clinics was from an old dinosaur health record to a new system with all the bells and whistles. [The clinics] were used to the idea of an electronic record; this is just an upgrade,” Keegan explained. “For our residential and school communities, they’ve been on paper records forever. To move people from paper to an electronic record is different.”

Buchdahl said the shift to an online system has required a heavy lift from various staff, particularly the “super users,” or Family Services Division and Catholic Charities leaders who tested the system, adapted it to meet the program’s needs, and trained colleagues to use it.

“Obviously, the bottom line is improving the quality of care to our clients,” Buchdahl said, highlighting privacy and connection to other providers as key components. He added that the roll out of the new system has required creativity, patience and optimism for the future potential of the electronic options. And staff have worked hard and risen to the challenge.

“We’re glad it’s finally here,” he said. “We recognize it’s for the best. We’ve been living in the 1980s and 1990s for far too long.”