Healthcare's Prescription Is IT's Headache

By Sharon Linsenbach  |  Posted 2008-03-13

Healthcare's Prescription Is IT's Headache

Patients and caregivers are demanding more cutting-edge healthcare technology than ever before, but the support and administration tasks required for this new care model are challenging some hospitals. 

Across the board, patients, doctors, nurses, hospital staff and administrators are in favor of any technology that can reduce costs, improve efficiency and increase quality of care, said Mark Jacobs, director of Technology Services, Operations and Security at WellSpan Health, including mobile and tablet PCs, self-service kiosks for patient check-in, co-payment collection, automated consent signature gathering and EHRs (electronic health records).   

"These are technologies that eliminate duplicate information and that work wonders alleviating waste," Jacobs said. 

For Rachel Heftler, director of Client Services/Information Systems Group at Memorial Sloan Kettering, her patients have narrowed down their wish list to three common refrains: they want to make appointments, refill their prescriptions and view their test results online, she said. 

"Our patients are used to the retail world or the banking world," she said. "They place orders online, they can track their deliveries, contact customer service, they can get updates within moments of a transaction, and they want the same from healthcare."

Heftler adds that as a cancer-only hospital, patients are often required to stay at Memorial Sloan Kettering for long periods of time, and often struggle with isolation from their everyday routine. Heftler said Sloan Kettering has provided Internet connections, loaner laptops and even video conferencing to keep patients in touch with their families, their work and even their school classrooms.  

"They really want to maintain a semblance of a normal life with the world outside.  They need to feel they are still a part of it," she said. 

While mobility and self-service are becoming "must-haves," many patients and caregivers are still wary of the value of EHRs.  Heftler said patients want them, but they neither understand the value nor trust that the information contained in the EHR will remain safe and secure.    

"What we hear over and over again is who's going to be keeper of the data?  How are we going to know the data will always be available? How can I make sure that the access is only authorized to certain people?" she said, adding that it's also a tricky feat for providers to access, modify and save that data safely, securely and while maintaining compliance. 

Healthcare's Prescription Is IT's Headache

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IT carries most of the support burden for these technological advances, according to both Jacobs and Heftler. A hospital IT/IS department installs, integrates, manages, monitors and troubleshoots most of the technology-driven clinical care hardware, software and network infrastructure a hospital is connected to.

"These new hospital networks allow for multiple clinical applications and devices to connect to the same conduit, and it really makes a potential support problem," Jacobs said.  Every device down to the smallest hand-held prescription scanner has to be supported, he said, adding that clinicians are dependent on IT to ensure all those technologies are simple to use and secure.  

"There's a huge number of biomedical devices that IT needs to support now, whether on the wireless or the wired network, 24/7: ventilators, pumps, nurse call systems -- all this has to be supported by IT, all this has to work on the same network," Heftler said. Because of ubiquitous high-speed Internet access at home, she said many clinicians are asking for the same kinds of speeds at work so they can read X-rays and view EKG results in real time, for instance.       

These demands necessitated a shift in the support model, including hiring new staff and creating new support roles like 24/7 phone support staff and field service technicians. 

"When you were supporting PCs and people used them for Excel or Word, a problem could wait until Monday morning.  But if you're supporting a nurse call system, or a ventilator or a pump, you can't tell a patient, 'Sorry, it'll wait until Monday,'" Heftler said. While she said she's extremely proud of the ability of her department to support cutting-edge technology, she said it certainly was a change in mindset.   

Jacobs said challenges aside, he's extremely optimistic about the direction healthcare is taking. He said IT has the potential to sharpen the focus of the healthcare system on patient needs and preferences through technologies such as self-service kiosks, online appointment scheduling and EHRs. Providing a more holistic view of a patient throughout their lifetime using EHRs, storage and high-speed networking could result in much higher quality care and a greater collaboration between patient and doctor, he said. 

"IT really can awaken the care relationships between physicians and providers and patients to levels not seen since the 1900s," he said.

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