Defining Health IT: A Dozen Notable Moments in 2004

Opinion: This year was more about sowing seeds than about reaping a harvest. But right now, the stakeholders seem to be toiling together.

The year 2004 ushered in a taste of what is being called the "dot-gov" boom in health IT. Both Republicans and Democrats are eager to show their support. As Bush-appointed health IT czar David Brailer noted, "Theres a magic aura around this topic, because its really hard to figure out what to fight about."

Another reason for the lack of struggle so far is that much of health IT remains in the discussion and planning stages. Stakeholders are working to agree on goals now, but they are sure to disagree when its time for specific action.

From the outside at least, the cooperation on goal-setting seems genuine. Competing stakeholders are actually trying to collaborate. And even if this determination is fueled by mandates from Medicare and ONCHIT (the Office of the National Health IT Coordinator), it still seems sincere.

So, while the details are hazy and will surely be contentious, the vision is clear, and it is grand:

Doctors and nurses get the information they need about a patient when they need it. If a patient ends up in the emergency room with a mysterious malady, medical staff can see instantly that, say, the patient recently filled a prescription for a new drug that can cause liver failure.

When patients change doctors, they dont have to waste time or risk faulty memories in bringing the next doctor up to speed. Previous care information is reliably updated and logically organized in the patients EHR (electronic health record).

Instead of new knowledge taking several years to filter into routine care, computerized advice is updated instantly based on new evidence and guidelines. Preventive care skyrockets, leading to a healthier nation.

Medical errors are slashed: Sloppy handwriting, forgetfulness and clerical errors cease to be hazardous. Computerized alerts and patient identification systems prevent patients from receiving the wrong treatments.

This vision will never be completely realized. Health IT may be a magical political topic, but its not a magical remedy, even for those with health insurance. Implemented badly, IT will decrease health care quality.

Useful health IT must put people first, and adjusting workflow to suit technology will have unintended consequences.

/zimages/1/28571.gifRead more here about the unintended consequences of e-prescribing.

That caveat aside, health IT has gained true momentum and is expected to reap real, widespread benefits within the next few years.

Next Page: Three of the years most momentous health IT events.