SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Dozens of community health clinics in North Dakota and South Dakota are getting wired.

More than 70 community health centers in the two states and Wyoming have partnered to create the Great Plains Health Data Network, fueled by a $1.56 million federal grant over three years.

The data network will make it easier for the 110,000 patients served by the facilities to access their own health information and make it easier for the facilities to share records with other medical providers and, hopefully, cut down on costs.

The Community HealthCare Association of the Dakotas and the Wyoming Primary Care Association partnership includes 11 non-profit health centers composed of 70 sites, many in under-served, low-income and rural areas. They provide primary and preventative care to patients regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay.

Shelly Ten Napel, CEO of CHAD, said there's a national push for improved health information technology by the grant funder: the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which issued nearly $42 million in total funding for community health center data networks in July. But she also said care providers at community health facilities and staff have found themselves frustrated by the lack of access to useful patient data.

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"We've known this is an area of challenge for awhile and we keep bumping up against it as we try to track improvement, as we try to understand where our patients are in the system — have they been to the hospital, have they been to the ER, " said Ten Napel. "So we've been running up against those barriers and know this is a big headache, a big challenge for a lot of primary care providers."

There were only five states not involved in a health center data network, such as the planned Great Plains Health Data Network. Since the minimum bar for a data network is 10 community health centers and CHAD consists of a maximum eight, Ten Napel said it made sense to partner with CHAD's equivalent in Wyoming, a neighboring, similar.

For patients, the data network could mean they can use a portal on their computer and (potentially their cell phone) to see lab results, see upcoming appointments, see medication instructions, send photos and otherwise communicate securely with their health providers.

For providers at the health clinics, the network could mean patient records and discharge information can be shared securely with other local providers and health systems, and patient care can be tracked and analyzed to make sure it provides a good value, look for opportunities to lower costs and better identify patient needs.

"There might be outlying issues, it could be transportation — it could be food insecurities, it could be housing — where we want to be able to provide those resources because that can 100 percent impact their health, as well," Becky Wahl, CHAD director of quality and innovation. "So it's really collecting some of that data, to find out exactly what is happening from a whole person, patient perspective."

The goals for the health data network are ambitious, and its development is still in its early stages, including the recent hiring of Kyle Mertens, who will head up the development of the network as health information and data analytics program manager.

"Data is power, so if we get the right data and we know how to use it, it could be very powerful in helping treat patients and helping these health centers be more productive," he said.

To find a nearby community health center, go online to: www.communityhealthcare.net/find-a-chc-map