PROSSER -- Health care in Prosser is changing -- subtly right now and more noticeably in the coming year.
PMH Medical Center and Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland on Monday announced a "strategic alliance" between the two hospitals. The increased collaboration already is making referrals to Kadlec specialists easier for physicians at the Prosser hospital.
Next year, the increased partnership will make medical specialists from the Tri-Cities available in Prosser and bring PMH online with Kadlec's new electronic patient-record system, officials said during a news conference Monday.
Both hospitals remain independently run. "This is not an acquisition, a merger or some kind of takeover," said Julie Petersen, PMH's chief executive. "We will remain a public hospital district with an elected board."
Patients who need to be referred from PMH to another hospital for special care still can choose to which facility they're going, Petersen said.
But Kadlec effectively now is the No. 1 choice for those patients who don't explicitly request to transfer somewhere else from PMH, and that transfer is made a lot easier and quicker, which helps save crucial time, hospital officials said.
The new referral system has been in place for a few months, Keith Butvilas, director of emergency medicine at PMH, told the Herald. It only now was formally announced as part of a wider agreement.
And Butvilas has seen tangible benefits for patients under the new transfer system. Before, a PMH emergency doctor treating a patient with a heart attack, for example, had to call around to see which area hospital had beds and cardiologists available.
"I've been on the phone for 20 to 25 minutes," Butvilas said. "Now Kadlec has agreed to back us up and take our patients. They call us in advance if they have space issues."
He also has greater access to the specialists at Kadlec if he needs advice.
And some of those specialists will work part time in Prosser starting next year.
"We plan to establish clinics here, where Kadlec specialists see Prosser patients in Prosser," said Rand Wortman, Kadlec's president.
Details remain to be worked out, but several doctors from specialties that previously were unavailable in Prosser have expressed interest in spending part of their working hours in Prosser, Wortman told the Herald.
The satellite clinics will be set up within the next 12 months, he said.
And Kadlec will not only send specialists to Prosser, but also family and other primary care doctors. PMH currently does not offer primary care services, Petersen said.
The other change included in the agreement between the hospitals is less obvious to patients, but may be the most significant -- PMH will join Kadlec's electronic records system next year.
Kadlec bought Epic computer software last year, Wortman said. Doctors in Kadlec clinics started keeping electronic records on the system Aug. 1. The new system will go live at Kadlec Regional Medical Center on Nov. 1, he said.
Doctors and computer technicians will spend months "fine-tuning the system," Wortman said.
And then it will go online at PMH, likely in the second half of 2012, he said. This puts PMH "one step ahead" of federal regulations requiring hospitals to switch to electronic patient records by 2016, Petersen said.
Basically, every time a patient is seen by a doctor or receives a test result, an entry is made into a computer. The next doctor or nurse who sees the patient -- no matter if in Prosser or the Tri-Cities -- can pull up the patient's record with a few keyboard strokes.
The new record-keeping system will mean fewer duplicate medical tests on patients and more-reliable information on what treatments a patient already has received from another doctor, Wortman said.
Dwindling Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements mean "hospitals have to provide more services with less money," he said.
The new software will help Kadlec and PMH achieve that goal, he said.
-- Jacques Von Lunen: 582-1402; firstname.lastname@example.org