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Penn State students coach doctors to use electronic medical records

State College, Pa. -- Tables have turned this summer at Mount Nittany Medical Center, as 29 Penn State students coach doctors at their jobs. Doctors are learning from a team of pre-med students how to transition from using handwritten medical records for patient discharges to electronic health records (EHR). Student coaches are stationed around the hospital from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week to help doctors learn EHR software. During downtime students have the opportunity to speak with doctors and nurses about their careers and the student's field of interest.

Stephen Tingley, Mount Nittany's chief medical information officer and a former physician at Penn State's University Health Services, came up with the idea when he learned that to receive federal government funding, Mount Nittany doctors must be completely transferred to the EHR system by the end of 2011. The use of EHR, which contributes to improved patient understanding of medical records, is part of the Medicare and Medicaid EHR Incentive Program. It offers a "financial incentive for the 'meaningful use' of certified EHR technology to achieve health and efficiency goals."

Coordinating 250 doctors' schedules for training seminars proved to be nearly impossible. Instead, Tingley reached out to Penn State for help.

By recruiting students in Penn State's Pre-Med Society, Pre-PA Club and Pre-Med Honor Society, and through a pre-med academic adviser and word of mouth, Tingley found 145 students interested in the experience. He scheduled a five-minute interview at Penn State Career Services with each student. They had that time to teach him how to do something -- how to perform a plié, make buffalo chicken dip, cut a parakeet's toenails or steal second base -- to prove they could teach busy doctors something new. While he thought many of the candidates were qualified, he could only hire 30 students. Of those, 29 are Penn State students; the 30th is from Duquesne University.

"This is a great experience for me to be in a hospital setting, see how it works and talk to doctors who offer good advice," Kelby Skelton, an Erie, Pa., native who just graduated from Penn State this summer, said. "You don't have to keep it all [EHR] business. I ask them lots of questions. It's been great talking about their field."

This job opportunity has brought some students more experience than they expected. One student, Tingley said, got to meet an orthopedic surgeon through the program and was then invited to sit in on an orthopedic surgery. Another was invited to shadow a physician's assistant around the medical center when she wasn't working as a coach. Stephany Fernandez, a Penn State junior studying toxicology, said that many of the doctors have been pleasant and have offered her invaluable advice.

"I was talking to a hematologist who told me to be vigilant about becoming a doctor," Fernandez said. "She said it's a long road and that I shouldn't let anything or anyone discourage me or knock me down along the way."

Likewise, most Mount Nittany doctors have found that having the students available this summer to help them implement the program was a good idea.

"They're well educated on the program and have been doing a great job instructing us on how to use it," Jeff Eaton, a cardiologist at Mount Nittany, said. "The system is not easy to figure out, it's so different, like a maze. I'm dreading the day when they're not here."

By 2015, all U.S. medical facilities must be completely computerized, using certified EHR technology not only to reduce errors and make medical records more available and comprehendible, but also to receive government funding from Medicare and Medicaid.

The summer coaching program with Penn State students ends Aug. 19. Tingley said he wishes they could have the students longer to ensure doctors know the program inside and out, but he feels confident that enough hospital staff has learned from the students how to use the program and can help each other as needed.

Keith Fernandez and Bryanna Blackie help Hy J. DePamphilis of internal medicine, with a patient discharge using the EHR software program. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated August 09, 2011