NIU to help implement, evaluate national heart disease research program

NIU School of Nursing and Health Studies labExpertise in studying healthcare delivery and years of assisting physicians and practices implement and use electronic medical records systems recently earned Northern Illinois University part of a $15 million federal grant to study how small-practice physicians manage heart disease.

NIU’s College of Health and Human Sciences and the Division of Outreach, Engagement, and Regional Development are part of a consortium led by Northwestern University that will look at how effectively small practice physicians are managing cardiovascular disease in a three-state area.

The project will include practices in northern Illinois, southeastern Wisconsin, and northern Indiana. The region has a population of more than 16 million people and about 16,000 primary care providers, of whom approximately 5,600 are part of small practices with 10 or fewer physicians. More than 32 percent of the region’s residents have high blood pressure; 38 percent have high cholesterol levels, and 20 percent are smokers.

James R. Ciesla
James R. Ciesla

NIU’s site principal investigators will be James Ciesla, associate dean for research and resources in the College of Health and Human Sciences, and Lisa Kaye Bergeron, director of the Illinois Health Information Technology Regional Extension Center (IL-HITREC) in the Division of Outreach, Engagement, and Regional Development.

Ciesla brings an impressive background in evaluating healthcare programs to the project. A Presidential Engagement Professor honored for his work with many healthcare systems in the region, Ciesla says the NIU team will be looking at the effect of electronic health records on the treatment of patients with cardiovascular disease.

“It’s the first time the question has been asked,” Ciesla explained. “We’ll be looking at things like how quickly patients are referred to smoking cessation programs, whether the correct tests and referrals are made – in other words, how electronic health records have changed practice patterns for heart patients.
There is a move in medical research on big topics like heart disease to work in consortium-based projects,” Ciesla added.

Derryl Block, dean of NIU’s College of Health and Human Sciences, said that “electronic health records have the potential of improving quality of care, but little is known about how they are used in small independent primary care practices.”

Bergeron provides project management and expertise in many aspects of the healthcare arena, including clinical management, large scale healthcare projects, and health information technology implementation. The ILHITREC team has spent the last six years working with small-practice physicians throughout Illinois in the adoption and implementation of electronic health record systems and achievement of meaningful use, the goal of which is to improve healthcare quality and decrease healthcare costs.

Lisa Bergeron
Lisa Bergeron

“Participation in this project is a natural extension of our activities and support provided through IL-HITREC,” Bergeron said. “Now we can take the next step to use this technology to evaluate current practices in cardiovascular care and establish best practices for the future.”

Long-standing relationships with physicians statewide made NIU a natural choice for the consortium, according the Anne Kaplan, vice president for the Division of Outreach, Engagement, and Regional Development.

“The consortium has to recruit 250 to 300 small, independent primary care practices for this project,” Kaplan explained. “Between our work over the years to connect rural practices with high-speed broadband and our efforts to help physicians get the most out of electronic medical records, we have a lot of great partnerships already with doctors and practice managers throughout the region.”

“The NIU team will include students, so we’re happy to see that the project is providing new opportunities for faculty and student research,” Kaplan added. “That’s one of the primary roles of the Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development– to create relationships and bring opportunities forward for the entire university and our partners.”

The consortium, known as Healthy Hearts in the Heartland, is made up of institutions that serve as nationally designated regional extension centers for health information technology and related health care organizations. It includes the Chicago Health IT Regional Extension Center (CHITREC) at Northwestern University, Purdue Health Information Technology Regional Extension Center (PurdueREC) at Purdue University, Illinois Health Information Technology Regional Extension Center (IL-HITREC) at Northern Illinois University, as well as local and state departments of public health, the American Medical Association, the Alliance of Chicago, University of Chicago, Telligen (Illinois’ Medicare quality improvement organization), and Metastar (a quality improvement organization and REC for Wisconsin).

The project is one of seven awarded nationwide from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) to evaluate efforts to help primary care practices use the latest evidence to improve the heart health of millions of Americans. This initiative, EvidenceNOW – Advancing Heart Health in Primary Care, supports the broad U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) effort for better care, smarter spending, and healthier people, and is aligned with the department’s Million Hearts® national initiative to prevent heart attacks and strokes.

“The goal of the EvidenceNOW initiative is to give primary care practices the support they need to help patients live healthier and longer,” said HHS Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell. “By targeting smaller practices, we have a unique opportunity to reduce cardiovascular risk factors for hundreds of thousands of patients, and learn what kind of support results in better patient outcomes.”

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