After joining the US Air Force in 1984, Slayton Austria started attending night school to earn his BS and his MBA in healthcare management. Over the next ten years with the Air Force, he would accumulate experience working in hospitals of every size. By the age of thirty-nine, he could safely say that he “grew up” in healthcare; he even had a decade of service as a chief information officer under his belt by then. “I’d say that’s pretty good training,” he says. Austria helps AHL break down the nuances of his work, including a major technological initiative.
Covering a 24-County Region
For the past year, Austria has been the CIO of North Mississippi Health Services (NMHS), a hospital system with more than forty clinics, five community hospitals, and a 650-bed medical center in Tupelo. The region spans twenty-four counties and a ninety-mile radius. With a population that large, Austria’s main focus is patient engagement.
That type of engagement goes beyond technology. “Being connected also means access to care and how we’re able to reach patients,” Austria says. “It’s also about the level of care they have within our system.”
The Largest Rural Health System in the United States
Providing everyone with access to care can be especially challenging in the mostly rural community that makes up much of the region’s population. NMHS gained approval to implement accountable-care-organization (ACO) opportunities back in December, and it will continue to focus on playing out rural ACOs to increase access and quality of care.
NMHS also seeks to create more rural health clinics within its catchment area. The expansion will ensure that patients have initial point-of-care access, which is key for the success of population health initiatives in the region. NMHS is using its current information systems to increase the continuity of its care—whether it’s day-to-day care, follow-ups, or specialty care. This starts with rural clinics that will feed into the central Tupelo location.
Fifteen Years of Evolution
Focusing on population health will be a relatively easy transition for NMHS and Austria. The company has fifteen years of experience creating single patient identifiers, also known as master patient identifiers. These allow the entire system to have one record for a specific patient, no matter where they are seen.
If a patient comes in to the Tupelo location from a rural clinic, and the physicians find that the patient is now allergic to, say, sulfa, the doctor can add that allergy to the patient identifier, which is then integrated throughout the entire system. The system also calculates health risks based on risk factors listed on the patient’s chart.
Until this system was realized, doctors were doing all this on their own, Austria notes. “Now, you’re going to give the caregiver even clearer visibility into the patients’ conditions and what’s going on in regard to potential risks. All of that is making sure the physicians have the information in front of them and helping them understand whether the patient truly is at risk.”
The master patient identifier is used across the entire health system, with one patient identifier for any possible encounter. The all-in-one system reduces duplicate patient records. From a population-health perspective, it ensures that the physicians at all NMHS facilities have the right information about the right patient at all times. This is still a brand-new standard to many hospitals, but it’s something that NMHS has been evolving since 2000.
Even though Austria wasn’t part of the program’s introduction to the NMHS system, he’s been an integral part of sustaining it—and integrating it—into a new population-health tool.
Austria created an IT strategic plan that focuses on patient-access initiatives that will ultimately make it easier for physicians to have the right information. That access also extends to patients, so they have the most accurate preventative information.
Integration and aggregation are two key aspects of improving population health for NMHS. The organization is in the process of implementing a technological solutions product that will allow true integration for all NHMS systems at the point of care. Unlike most hospital systems, this new product will allow NMHS to give caregivers necessary information from its different systems, with calculations for risk factors and scores. It introduces a larger focus on key health issues plaguing the region.
Some key areas the organization has already found are diabetes, sepsis, readmission rates, and patient safety. Integration on this would ensure successful health exchanges for new initiatives.
Integration and population health both tie into the system’s biggest goal of increasing patient access. Austria works the information side to ensure efficiency and that the physician always has access to the correct information at any given time.
Establishing a system for all of the healthcare information at the point of care is the solution Austria and NMHS are employing to make the difference for the physician and the patient.