The centralized record-keeping system designed to replace servicemembers’ and dependents’ paper medical files is due to arrive at its first European hospital next month, heralding the start of an electronic evolution in the military health-care system.

Called the Composite Health Care System II, the new program eventually will store all military patients’ medical information on a central database in Montgomery, Ala., signaling the final days of the stacks of handwritten documents traditionally carried by servicemembers.

Instead, all new records will be kept as electronic files in CHCS II, an upgrade that military medical officials this week called a vast improvement to the existing system.

“Once this is done it should have incredible benefits,” said Dr. Robert Walker, a physician and the deputy of primary care at the U.S. Army hospital in Heidelberg, Germany, which will be the first in Europe to implement the system. “It’s basically putting our foot in the right century.”

The benefits include the ability of doctors in military hospitals worldwide to view online a single, up-to-date record for each patient, eliminating duplicate files and preventing doctors from having to “start from scratch” when someone loses their paper record, Walker said.

Plus, the new electronic records will be legible, he said.

“It sounds really simple, but it makes a big difference in patient safety,” Walker said.

The implementation of CHCS II is a massive government project that started heating up last year with information technology staff moving the last two years’ worth of patients’ records from the old system into the new database.

Implementing the software in hospitals requires large numbers of new computers and printers for staff in the military’s expansive medical network, and training for everyone from physicians to administrative staff.

Tina Coffman, CHCS program manager for the Europe Regional Medical Command said Friday that she estimated “Landstuhl [Regional Medical Center] alone is getting 1,000 new pieces of hardware.”

Implementation began in January at seven stateside military hospitals, and after Heidelberg it will be installed at Landstuhl before moving on to other central European hospitals. By the end of 2006, the system will span all DOD hospitals and include dental records as well, Coffman said.

“There will be one medical record that will be available worldwide,” Coffman said.

But like many medical remedies, CHCS II initially will have to hurt before it can heal, as Coffman and Walker warned that patients will see appointment backups starting in February as staff are trained on the new software.

During implementation phases, some nonessential and simple procedures also may have to be delayed, Walker said, to allow available staff to take care of priority cases.

“We’re putting elective things off” at Heidelberg, he said.

And even proponents of the system like Walker and Coffman conceded that CHCS II, like any extensive new computer network, undoubtedly will see its share of bugs and setbacks before it runs smoothly.

“Patients need to be patient with us, if you will,” Coffman said.

Coffman also said that while CHCS II does create an electronic file for records dating to August 2002, patients with longer medical histories that date back further will have to hold on to their trusty paper records, so doctors can refer to pre-CHCS II treatments.

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