Rebooting the Health Care Industry

Opinion: While IT can't rebuild the U.S. health care industry from the ground up, there are many opportunities for improvement. Standardizing computer systems, improving medical databases, and secure electronic health care records are good places t

Whether its getting a referral to the right specialist, coping with volumes of productivity-draining paperwork or providing care for the unconscionable number of Americas uninsured, most Americans would agree that the U.S. health care system is in critical condition.

While fixing the system once and for all is beyond our ken, we do believe there are some ready opportunities for significant improvement through the intelligent use of IT.

Implementing standards to guarantee interoperability between insurers and hospitals computer systems is an obvious first step. In addition, standardizing and streamlining patient records can improve preventive care by flagging conditions that merit such treatment, thus avoiding high-cost procedures.

In a reporters briefing last week, in advance of this weeks Intel Developer Forum, Louis Burns, Intel Digital Health Group manager, noted that hospitals largest software-budget line item involves coding across the chasms between proprietary systems, such as those run by the motley collection of insurance companies with which doctors and hospitals must spend time interacting.

Another benefit of standardized patient records would be better medical databases, which can lead to life-saving discoveries. Burns noted that Kaiser Permanentes comprehensive medical database was used to demonstrate that the arthritis drug Vioxx could cause heart problems.

The question arises, however, over who should make the investments to bring about these improvements. Insurance companies are understandably reticent about footing the bill for interoperability-focused billing system upgrades that might generate few returns while making it less costly for hospitals to do business with the insurers rivals.

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We could call on doctors and hospitals to take the lead on health IT investment, but a return isnt always apparent there, either, particularly when investments in patient wellness can mean trading specialized, high-margin procedures for less lucrative preventive measures.

Burns said that, one way or another, an upfront investment must be made. The United Kingdom, he said, took the bull by the horns when its government poured billions of pounds into health IT.

Even with a different health care system in the United States, federal and state governments—as the nations biggest spenders on health care—can and must take the lead in establishing standards and certifications for streamlined insurance billing and secure, effective electronic patient records.

/zimages/5/28571.gifHospital CIOs say they want electronic medical records. To read more, click here.

President Bush has mentioned health IT in his last three State of the Union addresses, and his administration has taken steps toward improving the countrys health IT infrastructure. However, next years proposed health IT budget of $169 million is a fairly small figure.

Until a comprehensive health care fix is found, we believe its fair to demand that the tax dollars we already spend on health care be stretched as far as possible. Efficient, standardized and interoperable IT systems are an obvious place to start.

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