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EHR Use, Care Coordination Key to Treating Substance Abuse

According to a report from the Surgeon General, stronger EHR use could improve care coordination, leading to better substance abuse treatment.

By Sara Heath

- EHR use is integral to substance abuse treatment because it fosters better care coordination and clinical care improvement, according to the Surgeon General.


In the Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, the Surgeon General observed strong health IT systems can help substance use disorder clinicians better communicate with a patient’s other supporters, such as primary care physicians. By making data useable and capable for exchange, EHRs hold promise to improve outcomes.

“Strong health IT systems improve the organization and usability of clinical data, thereby helping patients, health care professionals, and health system leaders coordinate care, promote shared decision-making, and engage in quality improvement efforts,” the report said.

Improving care coordination will likely improve treatments because substance use disorder providers will be able to communicate treatment options and other critical clinical information with a patient’s other providers. By opening more support systems, the patient may be more likely to recover from her illness.

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  • “With the growing adoption of EHRs, individuals and their providers can more easily access and share treatment records to improve coordination of care,” the report’s authors wrote. “In turn, information sharing through EHRs can lead to improved quality and efficiency of service delivery, reduced treatment gaps, and increased cost savings to health systems.”

    Specifically, the report states that stronger EHR uptake could lead to treatment center partnerships with patient-centered medical homes (PCMH) and accountable care organizations (ACOs). These value-based care models are reportedly helpful for chronic disease management and care coordination, ideally helping recovery for those managing substance use disorder.

    Despite this potential, there are still significant barriers in the way of more integrated substance use disorder care. For example, only 20 percent of substance use disorder programs have adopted EHRs, the report says, limiting their abilities to communicate with other healthcare providers.

    “Substance use disorder treatment organizations currently face significant challenges in engaging in care coordination with other types of providers,” the report stated. “Substantial technical assistance and investments in staff and information technology are needed, yet substance use disorder treatment providers receive relatively little assistance or resources from federal or state agencies to make these changes.”

    For its part, the federal healthcare landscape is working to eliminate those barriers. In February 2016, a state Medicaid Director penned a letter outlining a path for substance use disorder clinics to use Medicaid EHR Incentive Program funding to connect to Medicaid primary care providers.

    Substance use disorder clinics also face trouble in connecting with non-clinical, social support systems. This is a considerable setback, according to the report, considering the important role social support systems play in recovery.

    “Substance use disorder treatment organizations face the challenge of communicating with non-health care personnel including those in social service, criminal justice, and educational facilities and even when EHRs are in place these systems lack interoperability… with the information systems used by social service organizations, hindering communication,” the report explained.

    To improve interoperability, the Surgeon General calls for better data and technology standards throughout the healthcare industry.

    Substance use disorder has grown into a national healthcare epidemic, the Surgeon General concluded, pointing to an urgent need for treatment improvement. Ultimately, health IT and EHR use offer broad opportunities for improving the care of individuals managing this illness.

    “Promising scientific evidence suggests that several electronic technologies, like the adoption of electronic health records (EHRs) and the use of telehealth, could improve access, engagement, monitoring, and continuing supportive care of those with substance use disorders,” the report explained.

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