The US Olympic team will be traveling lighter summer, by several thousand pounds.
For the first time, the 500+ delegation will be leaving behind reams of paper, in the form of medical records, in favor of electronic files that will enable athletes and doctors alike to do a better job of coordinating the team’s medical care.
“I would say that I’ve probably seen at least 30 doctors in my lifetime,” says Alex Morgan, a member of the US women’s soccer team. “I couldn’t even tell you how many different medical records I have all around the country and outside of the country. It’s a huge benefit to have it all in one place.”
The United States Olympic Committee partnered with General Electric to allow any US Olympian to go digital; only the athletes, the USOC and any doctors the athletes authorize can access the medical information via a designated portal. For now, the GE-based system is available only to Olympic athletes, but the company plans to open the technology to others soon.
While fans can follow their favorite Olympian via Twitter and texts, and get real-time updates on their activities, until this Games, medical records were handled in a conspicuously old-school way — shipped, in dozens of palettes, to the Games. For Beijing, the files literally took a slow boat to China, says Dr. Bill Moreau, managing director of sports medicine at the USOC. “Heaven forbid that an athlete would actually need something from their record while it’s being shipped, or on the ocean, or stuck in a harbor,” he says.
With the electronic records, anyone caring for an Olympic athlete, from a trainer to a physical therapist to a physician treating an emergency injury, can get a quick look at the athlete’s medical history at a glance, and update it with the latest developments. “Every single encounter with a health care provider — whether it’s to provide an ice pack or a massage, chiropractic care or have their ankle taped — all of that should be recorded,” says Moreau. Each athlete decides what information goes into his file, and is assigned a point-of-care ombudsman, who coordinates the incoming data. Every piece of new information that the athlete adds to the record, such as an X-ray or an MRI or a blood test or physical, is sent to the coordinating physician. With the average Olympian seeing eight different doctors at any one time, that’s a huge time saver.
The only information that isn’t part of the electronic medical record is the athlete’s drug testing results. Those are maintained by the US Anti-Doping Agency and kept in a separate file.
The system doesn’t just make patient care more efficient, says Moreau. It has the potential to improve medical care as well. He’s excited by the possibility of culling the data from the athletes to find patterns that can suggest better or worse therapies. (The information would be stripped of any identifying information first.) “We can now use analytics to track people who had ACL injuries, and say, this was how these people were rehabilitated, and they had spectacular recovery, while these people didn’t, and compare things that were done to develop clinical pathways to care,” he says. “We can start to identify best practices, and that’s really exciting.”
So far, 3417 athletes, and 512 Olympians, including those headed to London, have joined the system. The USOC is approaching each sport’s governing body to ask athletes whether they want to have their records digitized, and Moreau is hoping that most will agree. The system is built to ensure the athletes’ privacy (it has several layers of security to allow only authorized users to access the information), an important consideration for anyone releasing their records into an electronic system.
For those with Olympics on their mind, it’s a relief to have one less thing to worry about. “I’m looking forward to having everyone who treats me able to look at one source for my medical information,” says Morgan. “It’s a huge benefit, and we definitely could have benefited from this in the past.”
Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny . You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.