Interested in learning more about the future of healthcare technology? See “Technologically Speaking: What to Expect From Healthcare in the Next 10 Years.”
What Is a Beacon Community?
Though term is not particularly well-known, it is important to understand the context of Beacon Communities in order to appreciate their accomplishments. The HHS Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) earmarked $250 million over the course of three years for 17 diverse U.S. communities in order to see how technology could be tailored to suit each one’s needs. In order to be eligible for this program, each Community had to focus on three important areas:
- Building information technology (IT) structures in order to enhance the population’s present and future health.
- Linking that technology with measurable improvements in community health.
- Implementing quality improvement measures to ensure constant evaluation and alteration as needed.
To get an idea of just how Beacon Communities work, we decided to take an in-depth look at one of them.
How Western New York Became a Beacon
Western New York was selected as a Beacon Community because of its proven medical need. The New York Department of Health estimates that the number of diabetics in the state has doubled since 1994, meaning that one out of every 12 residents suffers from this disease. Further, the report “Adult Diabetes Prevalence in New York State” notes that the majority of these diabetics (66 percent) live outside of New York City. According to the Western New York Beacon Community Report, this project was funded with $16.1 million of the overall ONC grant. More than 40 healthcare organizations, including HEALTHeLINK, Catholic Medical Partners, and the P2 Collaborative of Western New York, came together to make the project possible. Its goals were threefold:
- Build information technology infrastructure.
- Improve healthcare cost, efficiency, and quality.
- Implement new methods of healthcare delivery.
There were several ways in which technology was employed to meet these goals. One was a preventive telemonitoring system, installed with the help of home health and visiting nurses, which allowed for remote collection of vital patient statistics such as blood sugar, blood pressure levels, and weight. This was done in the homes of high-risk diabetic patients, who ultimately reported a greater understanding of diabetes management and showed lowered A1C levels. With an additional grant, the program brought in nutritionists to help with diet management and encourage good lifestyle choices, which allowed diabetic patients to gain better control over their disease. The Western New York Beacon Community also developed a diabetes registry based on information from patients’ electronic health records (EHRs). This enabled MDs, PAs, and NPs to more efficiently track important parameters such as vital signs, lab values, and other test results. The registry generated quarterly reports that helped clinicians track patterns and adjust care plans as needed to improve disease management.
What About Other Beacon Communities?
The program in western New York was just one of 17 nationwide. Here are the highlights of some of the others:
- Crescent City Beacon Community in New Orleans, Louisiana, which focused on improving the health of racial minorities by emphasizing diabetes care and smoking cessation, along with also using patient health records to increase patient knowledge and self-efficacy.
- Southeast Minnesota Beacon Community in Rochester, Minnesota, which worked to improve healthcare access in rural communities and reduce healthcare costs and ER/hospital visits for patients suffering from diabetes and childhood asthma.
- Hawaii County Beacon Community in Hilo, Hawaii, which increased the efficiency of healthcare delivery for Hawaii residents by facilitating cooperation among independent hospitals, clinicians, and other healthcare groups.
Want to get involved in healthcare tech in your community? Read “Digital Health: Clinical Experts Wanted.”
Evaluation and Lessons Learned
The ONC funded a study through the University of Chicago to evaluate and analyze the Beacon Program in order to help with future plans to improve healthcare delivery with health IT. The evaluation, which looked strictly at Medicare patients, found that while some program results were mixed or uneven, Beacon Communities were able excel at overall use of resources. They reduced emergency room visits (for all causes), hospitalizations, and hospital stays for observation. Diabetic patients were the main focus of many Beacon programs, and they showed reductions in A1C levels and visits to the ER for diabetes-related causes. The report also found that, going forward:
- Programs of this nature should be given sufficient time for implementation, and program administrators should allow for sufficient time to see results.
- Aligning the efforts of regional programs with federal health programs can make it easier to foster desired changes in the healthcare system.
- Analyzing the need for a program and its possible return on investment can make it more likely that members of the healthcare community will engage with the proposed changes.
Though the Beacon Program wasn’t perfect, it did have an overall positive effect on health in the participating communities. It could also potentially pave the way for other, similar programs that apply new advances in medical IT according to the particular needs of diverse U.S. communities. Ultimately, this will advance the ways in which MDs, PAs, and NPs deliver healthcare and improve patient outcomes for a number of serious chronic conditions.