A computerized information network linking 16 rural hospitals with Utah Valley Regional Medical Center is in operation, and indications are it is achieving its goal: improved health-care delivery in remote areas of the state.

The Southern Regional Computer Network is the brainchild of Drs. Gregory C. Critchfield and Paul M. Urie, pathologists in the laboratory at the center.According to the doctors, only one other such network exists.

The center's laboratory had been involved in informal networking with rural hospitals for more than five years. In 1987, the two doctors realized that use of computers for communication and transmittal of data would vastly improve service to rural hospitals. More importantly, by increasing access to needed information and improving operating efficiency at the hospitals, the quality of patient care in rural areas would be improved.

"This is the ultimate in rural health care," Critchfield said. "We saw a need to improve capabilities with southern hospitals and felt the small hospitals that are isolated needed expertise that we had."

Critchfield said previously lab information was sent by telephone modem to printers at the hospitals. Electronic noise on the telephone lines interfered with reliable data transmission, however, and communication was one-way.

Also, rural hospitals are limited in their ability to stay current with new laboratory procedures and to maintain medical libraries and quality-assurance programs.

The computer network seemed to be the answer to overcoming these and other limitations in rural health care.

The two doctors, who share an interest and proficiency in computer programming, developed the software for the network at home on their own time.

A $15,000 grant from the Health Care Forum and the Association of Western Hospitals provided the money to install a central computer at the center and personal computer units at 16 labs throughout southern Utah.

Wasatch County Hospital in Heber was put on the network on August 25. Additional sites connected since then include Beaver Hospital in Beaver, Allen Memorial Hospital in Moab and Sanpete County Hospital in Mt. Pleasant.

Since the program's inception, the center's pharmacy and medical library have been added to the network, providing rural hospitals access to these resources. Other resources will be added in the future, in particular a nationwide computer network through Brigham Young University.

The network is now used mainly as an electronic mail system, to check lab-proficiency tests and to transmit lab reports.

Rayma Markland, lab manager at Central Valley Medical Center in Nephi, said "turnaround time for lab reports has improved noticeably" and that the lab has achieved time savings in other areas thanks to the system.

Implementation of the system has had an added benefit: hands-on introduction of rural hospital personnel to the information age.

"We wanted to improve their (rural lab personnel) computer literacy, which, with their budgets they weren't able to do," Critchfield said.

"We're in an information age," Urie said. "Computers are starting to play a larger role in medicine . . . from information gathering and storage to aiding diagnosis and testing."

Part of a Small Hospitals Laboratory Seminar held Friday at the center was dedicated to increasing computer literacy to ensure lab workers are fully able to benefit from the network system.