First, the government pushed doctors to digitize patient health records. Next, federal officials urged states to build information highways to share patient information beyond individual doctor's offices.

Delaware was the first in the nation to establish a statewide system.

WHYY/NewsWorks senior health writer Taunya English spoke with Randy Farmer, director of provider relations and business development at the Delaware Health Information Network. An edited, excerpt from their conversation:

English:
How do you describe the system?

Farmer:
The Delaware Health Information Network is like an electronic post office. Hospitals, labs, radiology firms -- they make orders to have tests done and various types of procedures looked at. The results of those requests are posted through our network so that doctors and health-care providers have an easy, safe, secure way to get the results — quickly -- on their patients.

English:
Who's connected? Who's plugged in?

Farmer:
It's really a wide variety of doctors throughout the state. We currently have a penetration rate of around 97-98 percent of physicians who make orders throughout the state. That comes out to about 2,400 in terms of the folks who are enrolled in our program — including their staffs. We have about 6,000 users.

We launched in 2007, we had four institutions as data senders: three hospitals and one private laboratory firm. Over the next two years, we added three more organizations, and now we have 10 data centers live including all but one of the hospitals. Nanticoke, they are coming on live later this year. So we'll have 100 percent of hospitals in the state delivering results into the statewide information network.

English:
At year five, what's on the horizon?

Farmer:
One of the things we are working on is allowing providers to be able to work more closely with the division of public health. Folks have a hard time sometimes remembering what they've had done in the past. If you are having a conversation with your doctor and he says, 'When was your last tetanus shot?' -- eventually, folks will be able to work through our network, query public health for that information and see the records associated with that particular patient.

English:
Will DHIN expand to become a system for consumers, also?

Farmer:
Patient and consumer engagement is really coming to the fore right now. The more engaged somebody is with their own health care, the better able they are going to be in terms of making decisions. We want to take some of that complicated information that we have on our network — the fancy medical speak that's included in there — and cull it down to some very easily digestible, easy-to-understand information, make a picture out of it.

[For example, if a patient knows] that in four or five years, if they don't make some important changes in terms of their health care they may have a 40 to 60 percent risk of developing type II diabetes, that could help make some meaningful difference in folks' lives, in terms of the choices they make and how they take care of themselves.

English:
Could the system become an economic tool for Delaware?

Farmer:
A study that was done between 2009 and 2011 indicated that we reduced high-volume, high-cost laboratory tests by 33 percent and high-cost, high-volume radiology exams by 30 percent. That's millions of dollars in unnecessary tests as well as the fact that you are not exposing some patients to unnecessary doses of radiation. If we are able to show that, over time, we've brought down the cost of health care, we should be able to position the state better saying, 'Hey look, come to Delaware with your jobs, with your businesses. You are going to have cheaper health-care costs for your employees.'

A version of this story will air on a WHYY-TV First Extra: Health+Technology. The half-hour special explores the ways tech innovations are driving medicine and airs at 5:30 p.m. on March 28 on WHYY-TV. It will be re-broadcasted on April 2 at 7:30 p.m.