Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Seven Myths of Healthcare Technology 3. Technology Can Do It All

In a letter sent Tuesday to Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.), President Barack Obama reiterated his commitment to promoting the use of information technology as a means of reducing healthcare costs.

healthcareITnews, June 4, 2009
A month later, HealthcareIT news reported
"President Obama called for fixing the broken healthcare system by building upon investments made in electronic medical records in a town hall meeting held Wednesday."
[July 1, 2009]

In the US, many of the players--drug makers, provider organizations and insurance companies--have been calling for increased IT investment as the key solution to the problems of healthcare in the US. The advantages of increased IT efficiency are clear. Yet the healthcare business process lags far behind other businesses in the use of electronic automation. Most providers and facilities are just beginning to look at electronic record management, and many are still using only paper records. The most advanced use of IT for healthcare is by the Federal government. The Department of Defense is well along in development of a "lifetime electronic record" and the VA continues to set a high standard for management efficiency. And Medicare/Medicaid manages one of the largest patient bases and payment processes electronically.
But does electronic automation provide ALL the answers?
In Canada, aggressive support of HIT has been a policy of both the Federal and Provincial governments since 2000. A number of hospitals in the greater Toronto area became very active in digitizing patient records and integrating digital patient records into the care process. Record access has been greatly increased. There are years of data recording increased record accuracy and improved efficiency in data entry. Many of the hoped for results have been realized.
Yet, this past year, the Province of Ontario presented a grant pool of millions of dollars to support possible solutions to wait-time reduction. It seems that even after all of the HIT implementations of the last eight years, patients are sometimes experiencing emergency-room waits in excess of five or even 10 hours (these grew even longer in the 2007 flu season). The back-ups waiting for hospital admissions are staggering and seemingly without a solution--even from "fully integrated" HIT systems. According to a 2006 survey by Ipsos Reid, 42% of Canadians surveyed felt that '"a patient wait time guarantee that would reduce wait times for key health services' was the most important to them personally."
So, why has IT not been the solution to the Number One issue for Canadians (lower taxes got only 19%)? Because the solution is not about the technology. According to providers at a number of well-digitized hospitals in Ontario, patient records and patient interaction are great in the ED--patients' records can be created, their histories can be accessed, and intake moves pretty quickly. In-patient care has also been greatly improved; medication conflicts are avoided, patients are correctly identified and prescribed, etc. These providers are quite clear that the breakdown is the connection between in-patient and out.
Because of the differences in workflow and practice, HIT systems are different in the ED than in the rest of a facility. And connecting the data from the one to the information from the other to create usable knowledge that would enable efficiencies is not as easy as just installing a data-mapping agent. It takes people and, more importantly, it takes changes in the ways those people work.
Emergency Department staff do not access bed-management resources. Why would they? Emergency care is just that. And as we have discussed earlier (Myth #1), healthcare providers focus on the immediate task at hand--the here and now. They only look for a clinic/bed assignment when they are done with a patient--and then it can become a rushed, time consuming task for staff both in the ED and on the wards. Perhaps, Upon initial diagnosis of a patient, the search for a clinic/bed assignment were begun (to run in concert with the continued efforts in the ED) in anticipation of an eventual need for admission. Then patients might move more easily and quickly into the inpatient population, and that would reduce the long queues of people waiting in the ED.

A non-technical solution to a problem of technology--Sometimes, Healthcare IT cannot do it all--and should not......

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