Around 700 members of Team USA will travel to this summer's Olympic Games in London. For the first time, crates full of paper medical records won't be going with them.
The U.S. Olympic Committee is digitizing health records this month for the athletes who will be competing in London, as well as for about 3,000 other athletes who have been seen by USOC doctors in recent years. Some say this step is a sign that electronic medical records have made it to the big time.
According to Bill Moreau, managing director of sports medicine, the USOC decided to transition from paper once it saw that electronic records had the agility to deal with the unique needs of Olympic athletes.
"Our patient population is probably -- next to the military -- the most mobile population of any group in the world," Moreau said. "Our athletes are on different continents in the same week." An Olympian might be practicing in the U.S. one day and competing in Europe or South America the next.
And even when they are at home, tracking athletes' health as they train is no easy task. "They're seen at different clinics that are geographically dispersed across the United States, from Lake Placid in upstate New York, to Colorado Springs, to Chula Vista, which is in San Diego," Moreau added.
Transporting the reams of information has become a particular burden for the USOC. Previously, the committee had to gather and ship its records to each Olympic host city and didn't have access to athletes' health information for days at a time.
The paper-records approach also created challenges for care coordination. The average Olympian has eight different clinicians involved in care, according to Moreau, and about half of the athletes aren't in constant contact with the USOC and its health care providers.
Meanwhile, some athletes, including swimmers, still are in the midst of qualifying events. Once those are completed, and team members are selected, the USOC will have to quickly gather health information from both athletes it expected to travel to London, and others who were surprises. An electronic system should make that process faster.
According to Jim Corrigan, vice president and general manager of GE Healthcare IT -- which created the committee's system – members of Team USA will have their paper records digitally scanned or added manually to the collection. GE's program, called Centricity Practice Solution, is already used by more than 40,000 providers in the U.S., but it will be customized to better meet the challenges presented by athletes.
The new system will give USOC medical providers a better overall sense of athletes' readiness for competition, Moreau said. Records will include more thorough monitoring of blood hemoglobin, which is important for performance, as well as immunizations, for athletes' frequent travel. The USOC will also have specialized forms for injury reports at the Games, and the system will ask for more details than it would ask the average patient.
"There are many variables we want to track to make sure Team USA is ready to go," Moreau said.
Electronic records will enable USOC doctors to be much more efficient in emergencies, he added. For example, if women soccer players are injured during the games they'll play in Scotland, physicians can quickly transmit an X-ray and other information to specialists back in London, or elsewhere. According to Corrigan, providers will also have access to the health records via iPad or other mobile technology.
"For physicians -- whether they take care of athletes or our friends or family -- having the right info at the right time can be critical," Corrigan said.