IBM: Government Should Provide Muscle for Health Care Standards

Health care IT has a surfeit of standards, and many of them overlap and are incompatible, said Carol Kovic, general manager of IBM Healthcare, during a panel at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference.

WASHINGTON—At a panel about how information access could improve health care, Carol Kovac, general manager of IBM Healthcare, repeated a joke: "The nice thing about standards is that there are so many to chose from," she said. The point is that health care IT has a surfeit of standards, and many of them overlap and are incompatible. The government could be the impetus for solving this problem if "it has the will," she said, noting that the cynics might question this will, given the federal budget deficit.

The panel at which Kovic was speaking was part of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences conference, here this week. Kovac went on to say that even though everyday technologies like the Internet have shown that common standards could benefit everyone, people in the health IT space take the attitude of, "Im all for standards, as long as Im the winner."

But others in health care IT say that IBM is likely adhering to the same policy. "The reason why were seeing [the big technology companies] participate is the assumption that theyll be able to make money," said Robert Seliger, CEO of Sentillion Inc. and head of the interoperability taskforce at HIMSS (Health Information and Management Systems Society). Smaller vendors have been working on these issues for years, he told, and while he said the larger groups were welcome to participate, they need to recognize others expertise. "[Large IT groups] need to think about how to be inclusive in the industry and not just show up," he said.

Kovac said she was confident that a need for reduced costs and improve quality would, relatively soon, drive a conversion from data stored on paper to exchangeable, electronic data. "Were placing a bet that adoption of [electronic medical records] and electronic data capture will really start to grow in the marketplace," she said.

/zimages/5/28571.gifAlso at the AAAS conference, President Bushs science tsar clashed with a prominent Congressman over the administrations stance on computer models. Read more here.

Information and exchange standards could raise the quality of health care, she said, "if the federal government puts some muscle behind it." This promises to "move health care from a craft to something that adheres to standards."

She also said that there may be more cost-savings than skeptics envision. For example, before the advent of supply chain management software, she said, everyone assumed that the only way to ensure that customers could get their orders filled quickly was to keep inventories high. Tighter information exchange should have even more potential in the health care arena.

However, she said that health care payers could very well be a force for improving health, since it would improve their bottom line. Health care payers "should want this kind of data, and still protect patient privacy," she said.

But clear legislation is necessary for patients to feel comfortable interacting with health care payers, particularly for genetic information that could direct patient care, she said. For example, its unclear when something could become a pre-existing condition. Health care payers must be told "heres what you can do, heres what you cant do," she said.

By aggregating data from large groups, payers could tell what kinds of treatments were most effective without looking at data associated with a particular individual. But while health care payers are "very interested" in this application, she said, she has not seen much collaboration. Also on the sidelines are employer groups like Leapfrog that have banded together to address the rising cost of health care, but their impact has to date been negligible. "Other than cheerleading, not much has happened yet," she said.

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