ZIFFPAGE TITLEUnification Costs High

By Deborah Gage  |  Posted 2004-08-01 Print this article Print

So far, the various health-care constituencies—insurers, hospitals, doctors, policy makers—have agreed on what technical issues to address. Standards for recording and exchanging data, as well as federal certification of technologies and products, are on the list. But few, if any, details on what is specifically needed or how results will be achieved have been worked out. There have not even been any noticeable discussions during this initiative, which is led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, of using technology to track and report medical errors. The project to unify record-keeping and exchange could cost as much as $1 trillion to install. Yet it could promote a greater "culture of safety in the health-care industry. Advocates of increasing patient safety, such as David M. Lawrence, chairman emeritus of the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, say the airline industry can be a model. From 1950 to 1990, fatalities in commercial aviation fell 80% after the industry began meticulously analyzing accidents and near-misses. But while hospitals have leaped at the chance to invest in new technologies that they can charge for, such as whole-body scanners, they have been slow to invest in or fund the development of computer software and hardware that improve patient care and safety. In May, Forrester Research found that while organizations across the country plan to increase their information-system spending this year by 2.4%, hospitals will increase tech spending by only 1.9%. And last month, the Medical Records Institute, a group pushing for the adoption of electronic health-care records, found that 55% of the 800 health-care managers it surveyed cited a lack of funds as the biggest barrier to the adoption of electronic health records. As a result, it may indeed take 10 years—or more—for a common method of keeping track of patient care instructions and history to emerge and be adopted.
So why would any health-care institution want to go through the pain of converting to electronic records? If they want to see why its worth it, administrators and physicians need only look at Cincinnati Childrens Hospital.
Click here to read Baselines "Can Software Kill?" , about a fatality from programming errors. Despite the difficulties, Cincinnati Childrens, through hard work and force of will, built a system that, in the two years its been installed, has cut medication order and dispensing errors to fewer than 90 a month from almost 120 a month in 2003; virtually eliminated mislabeled lab reports, such as putting the wrong patients name on a blood test, to 0.02% from about 0.08% in 2002; and cut the time it takes to deliver drugs from the pharmacy to the bedside from almost two hours in 2002 to one hour. The result: the 423-bed, not-for-profit medical center, which specializes in pediatric medicine, research and teaching, last year was the first childrens hospital to win the Nicholas E. Davies Award of Excellence, given by the Health Information Management Systems Society for progress in computerizing patient records. "Their drive to become better, and their willingness to pay the price, is unique," says Jerome Dykstra, a systems consultant in Chicago who has worked with Cincinnati Childrens since 1997.

Parents from around the world bring their children— babies in strollers, toddlers walking the halls with stuffed animals in hand—to Cincinnati Childrens. And for good reason: The pediatric medical center is consistently placed among the top 10 childrens hospitals in an annual U.S. News & World Report ranking. Next Page: Between 85 percent and 90 percent of patients at Cincinnati Childrens have an X-ray, CT scan or other medical image.

Senior Writer
Based in Silicon Valley, Debbie was a founding member of Ziff Davis Media's Sm@rt Partner, where she developed investigative projects and wrote a column on start-ups. She has covered the high-tech industry since 1994 and has also worked for Minnesota Public Radio, covering state politics. She has written freelance op-ed pieces on public education for the San Jose Mercury News, and has also won several national awards for her work co-producing a documentary. She has a B.A. from Minnesota State University.


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