Iowa Health System (Des Moines, Iowa) is taking a plunge into the healthcare information technology sector with one of the biggest projects the Midwest has seen in healthcare – a 3,200-mile-long fiber optic network that will allow for increased connectivity and communication throughout the state.

The organization said that the network, HealthNet connect, uses the same technology and architecture as Iowa Health System's separate internal fiber optic network.

The Iowa Health System network operates at a 99 % reliability rate and processes more than 8 million transactions a day. The network runs throughout Iowa and spans four states, with direct fiber connections to major metropolitan cities such as Chicago and Denver.

HealthNet received the green light when the FCC established the $417 million Rural Healthcare Pilot Program to increase patient access to care via tele-medicine and to support the transfer of electronic medical records. IHS received $7.8 million of the program's grant money for the project.

The Rural Health Care Pilot Program is providing 85% access connection funding for eligible health-care providers while IHS is sponsoring the remaining 15% for its phase one participants.

Iowa Health System is planning connectivity options for hospitals and clinics throughout the state, even in remote rural areas, by connecting HealthNet connect's fiber optic network to rural hospitals and clinics through "last mile" connections.

The system is being touted as simply a tool that can enable health-care professionals to deliver better care to their patients.

"We're really organizing this so the end users can tell us what they want and what they feel they need," Bill Leaver, CEO of Iowa Health System, told Healthcare InfoTech Business Report. "Users of the network actually will direct the creation of the applications they feel they need."

The organization said that these needs could be from sharing more medical information, remote radiology, to diagnostic services.

HealthNet connect will be one of the first and largest functional networks in the nation to offer the capability of multi-state connectivity. The network will be able to connect to other healthcare providers and databases around the country, using the national network backbone capabilities of Internet2 and National LambdaRail, which are designed exclusively for research and education.

However there are 28 Iowa hospitals in phase one, which will be completed in June, and that's the first focus of the system.

"One of the biggest deterrents would be an agreement of exactly what patient information could be used for the network," Leaver said.

HealthNet connect applications are directed by healthcare professionals using the network, so the initial group of hospitals will be instrumental in determining actual network usage.

Plans call for HealthNet connect to provide the common backbone for medical records sharing, continuity of care documentation and inter-facility data transfers required by state law by 2010.

Additional plans call for HealthNet connect to provide direct access to national research organizations for education, research and participation in clinical trials.

In the near future, additional telehealth and telemedicine applications will be possible. HealthNet connect will eventually be accessible to a wide healthcare user base, including private clinics, physicians, pharmacies, labs, payers and other entities in the healthcare delivery cycle.

"We're very excited about the capabilities and the potential our network has," Leaver said. "There's a great deal of excitement in Washington about what we're doing. We've heard from [Iowa's] legislative delegation. We've also had a lot of dialogue with vendors who will be supplying some of the applications over the network. Out ultimate hope is that we'll be bale to manage and provide better healthcare with this system."

Formed in 1995, Iowa Health System is the state's first and largest integrated healthcare system, serving nearly one of every three patients in Iowa. IHS has one of the largest workforces in the state, with nearly 20,000 employees and annual revenues of $2 billion.

Each year, through more than 1.8 million patient visits, its hospitals and clinics cover virtually every medical specialty and provide a full range of care. Iowa Health System is the seventh-largest nondenominational health system in America.

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