Benefits and Impediments to Health IT

By Sarah Sorensen
June 2, 2010

Change abounds in the health care industry, so I thought it was time to revisit the role technology is or could play in the revamping, streamlining and advancement of healthcare provisioning.

The good news is there are a lot of interesting applications that promise to bring quality care to people for whom it may have previously been unattainable. In rural areas, where needs are high, yet access is constrained, HealthIT holds the promise of delivering much needed health services. It's why it is a pivotal piece of the United Nations' plans to address the health needs of citizens in rural locations in some of the world's least developed countries. These are places where tuberculosis is rampant, where the number of people living with HIV continues to multiply (almost tripling in the Pacific), and where mortality rates can be more than 50% higher than urban areas for children under five. (In the United States, estimates place the the number of Americans living in rural areas with a shortage of primary care providers at 65 million.)

HealthIT can help broaden the reach of medical expertise and care to rural areas. It can support skill building and improve access to information and resources for medical professionals to better equip them to diagnose and treat those who walk through their clinic's door. In addition, network connections and video feeds between facilities can enable people in rural clinics to have face-to-face consults with specialists in large hospitals, without having to travel. They can ensure rural medical personnel get second opinions or help with procedures and treatment options from colleagues around the world. There are also reports of overall improved patient care and follow up from providers who are now able to proactively track the electronic health care records (EHR) of their rural patients - leading to more preventative services and better coordination of general care.

Beyond rural applications, there are efficiencies and improved patient care to be garnered throughout the healthsystem with HealthIT applications. There was an interesting article in Information Week on how technology is helping surgeons improve their surgeries - from the preparation to the billing to the communication with patients.

As I mentioned in a previous post there is the potential to improve information accuracy and reduce costly mistakes. It also represents an opportunity to improve collaboration, with innovative Web 2.0 Healthcare applications, that can advance medical knowledge to benefit us all.

However, for the benefits to be truly universal, there are several things that need to happen. First is investment, which according to Dow Jones VentureSource has been dropping (25% in the first quarter of 2010; 77% over the same quarter in 2009). This is in the face of the $20 billion authorized by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to spur development of HealthIT, and it represents a problem. Without adequate investment, much needed innovation is stalled. And it is through innovation that the technology is streamlined and made truly relevant and useful for the field.

Which leads me to another issue impeding the far reaching benefits of HealthIT - standardization. Even though the U.S. has a push to ensure every person has an electronic health record (EHR) by 2014, as the recent Electronic Health Record Usability Vendor Practices and Perspectives report details there are no standards for these records. This has the potential to create security and interoperability problems that can complicate cross-institutional sharing of information and hamper the speed and quality of patient care.

While HealthIT promises to revolutionize the way we track, make decisions, and receive health care services, it first needs to be secure, pervasive and interoperable. It's going to be challenging, but the end goal will be worth it- a more effective and sustainable system that can improve the health and wellness of populations around the globe.

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