ECG Image Management Brings Increased Productivity and Confidence

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  IMPAX HeartStation from Agfa Healthcare is a vendor-neutral data
management solution that automates the processing and storage
of electrocardiograms.

Seamlessly integrating ECG information into electronic medical records is imperative in today’s totally connected medical enterprise. Managing ECG image capture and report generation leads to a more efficient use of resources, as well as better patient outcomes.

One of the challenges of ECG image management is to have the images available across the enterprise for a wide range of clinical purposes and use. Typically, ECG workflow is faster, with a higher volume of records, than other cardiovascular data. Many times, older ECG acquisition equipment does not interface well with new equipment, which presents a problem to many departments and practices as they move toward replacing their older analogue ECG systems.

The latest generation of ECG image management systems can dramatically improve rapid access to ECG exams throughout the enterprise via integration with the hospital electronic medical record (EMR). Productivity can be increased because ECGs can be displayed faster and interpreted more quickly—even remotely from a physician’s laptop.

While many of the EMRs are fairly intuitive and straightforward, there is a learning curve. These systems are expensive in hardware and software, as well as in training time for physicians and staff. One of the first things needed before implementing an EMR is a strong commitment from leadership. “If you don’t have a firm commitment from leadership about the value of an EMR, don’t implement it,” says Dan Caldwell, MBA, executive director of Little Rock Cardiology Clinic in Arkansas. “Many people who manage groups have lost their jobs because the EMR implementation turned out to be more difficult and expensive than anticipated. If the leadership doesn’t back you up in those situations, someone has to fall.”

When implementing an EMR, it’s important also to manage the expectations of your physicians and staff. “You want to let them know it will be disruptive,” Caldwell says. “You want to get your physicians to spend time discussing this issue.” He advises to be straightforward about the process, that it will be frustrating in the beginning.

Disruptive, but worth it

Little Rock Cardiology Clinic slowly began implementing an EMR (NextGen Healthcare Information Systems) into its practice in mid-2007 and has since incorporated a digital ECG image management system. In a busy practice like Little Rock (one of the top in the country in terms of productivity per physician, says Caldwell), they had to be careful the EMR implementation would not be too disruptive.

“Even with an intuitive system like NextGen, implementation is difficult and disruptive. It takes time to train people and many physicians do not want to take the downtime to train,” Caldwell says. Having said that, he emphasizes that within four to six months, no one ever wants to go back to the paper system.

“I think it’s a mistake to stay with analogue ECGs. They are certainly useable, but you are leaving aside great capabilities, such as the ability with the EMR to compare ECGs over various timeframes,” Caldwell says.

One of the more laborious parts of the conversion to digital was scanning all the old paper ECG records. Caldwell’s practice handles about 20,000 ECGs a year. The electrocardiograms need to be scanned at a high resolution so they are useable, particularly for zooming in to look at the tracings. Consequently, they eat up a lot of disk space, he said.

Their new system, the IQmark Digital ECG (Midmark Diagnostics Group), creates a much smaller image than a scanned image. When the ECG is pulled up for review, the software writes the image each time and displays it as a graphic. The image itself is not stored. Caldwell adds that the Midmark system makes it easy to line up ECGs in windowing and compare the old with the new. “It’s a great analysis tool for electrophysiologists,” he says.

Rather than deal with carts that must be rolled into rooms, digital systems like Midmark require a set of cables that plug into the workstation. “My medical assistants and nurses walk around with their ECG cables around their neck, like a stethoscope. It’s very portable. They can take an ECG anywhere you have a NextGen workstation,” Caldwell says,

The medical assistants and physicians like that the ECG is available with other information such as vital stats, history, physical and medication