Healthcare IT: No Quick Cure

Computerization is slowly improving the healthcare system, but it's a long way from living up to expectations.

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"This is really going to take a lot of work and a lot of evolution. It's going to take a little bit of carrot, a little bit of stick and time to get there," says William Spooner, CIO at Sharp HealthCare in San Diego.

The U.S. government is providing the carrot and stick. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 provides $19 billion in incentives to health care providers that demonstrate they are engaged in "meaningful use" of EHR systems, but providers that don't meet the government's meaningful-use guidelines by 2015 face cuts in their Medicare reimbursements.

"Getting hospitals to start using EHRs is critical," says Ashish Jha, associate professor of health policy and management at Harvard. "Paper-based medical records lead to hundreds of thousands of errors each year in American hospitals and probably contribute to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans. This is not acceptable. There is overwhelming evidence that EHRs can help, yet the expense and the disruption that implementing these systems can cause has forced many hospitals to move slowly."

One well-known reason for adopting EHR systems is that they could enable health professionals to access a patient's medical history anytime, anywhere. Such access would even be available to a doctor treating a patient who needs emergency care while far away from home.

In addition, Spooner says computerized systems can alert doctors immediately when a patient's lab results indicate something abnormal, allowing caregivers to act quickly to prevent complications. And some systems can compile patient data onto dashboards at hospital nurses' stations, so the nurses can see all information at once, rather than having to check charts room by room.

Analytics for Healthcare

Experts say that an even more powerful use of electronic records would be to analyze large groups of patients, track trends, identify best practices and determine the best treatments. "That's the ultimate goal: to discover patterns in the population you wouldn't otherwise," says David Muntz, CIO at Baylor Health Care System in Dallas.

That's the goal, but we're far from it because of problems with data sharing, says Timothy Stettheimer, regional CIO at St. Vincent's Health System in Birmingham, Ala., and chairman of the board of trustees of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives.

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