Healthcare IT: Is it All Hype?

Published: Thursday, Feb 14, 2008
The topic of health information technology (IT) seems to be popping up everywhere nowadays. No longer the

province of healthcare and tech-focused websites, it has recently made prominent appearances in the pages of

high-profile, widely read publications like Time magazine, the Boston Globe, and The New York Times, and has been featured numerous times on popular news outlets such as CNN and MSNBC. Once the presidential campaigns start heating up (and yes, they will get much hotter), health IT will likely get even more air time. Given all this massive media exposure and attendant hyperbole, and in light of some of the grandiose claims made regarding the capabilities and promise of healthcare IT, one could be forgiven for asking the question: Is health IT all hype?

One person who certainly doesn’t think so is Kevin Hutchinson, a guy who knows a thing or two about health IT. Hutchinson is an active member of the American Health Information Community (AHIC) and serves as president and CEO of SureScripts, an innovative outfit based in Alexandria, VA, which has made it its mission to “facilitate the electronic transmission of prescription information between physicians and pharmacists” and “improve the overall quality, safety, and efficiency of the prescribing process.”

When Hutchinson moved to Alexandria, VA, three years ago, he had an interesting experience: about 10 minutes after he installed his telephone and fax machine, he started receiving faxes. Tons of them. Only it wasn’t like the Seinfeld episode where Elaine was getting bombarded with restaurant menus. There was nothing comical about what Hutchinson discovered when he began sorting through the laboratory results, prescription refill requests, discharge summary reports, and other crucial medical documents that were being sent to him instead of to physicians’ offices.

After some investigating, Hutchinson learned that the fax number assigned to him was previously registered to a nearby practice. The catch? Th e physician’s office, it turns out, changed the number three years earlier. The pharmacies that were still using the (supposedly) defunct number had received several notices that the number had changed; however, their speed-dial settings still contained the old number and continued to send prescriptions to a business address and not a doctor. “I couldn’t believe it,” said Hutchinson in an interview with MDNG. “We’re talking three years. It really opened my eyes.”

Take-Home Message

The whole ordeal could have been avoided, said Hutchinson, if ePrescribing systems had been put into practice by the physicians and pharmacists involved. ePrescribing—or as Hutchinson prefers to call it, “the automation of the prescribing process”—works to fix the errors often caused by manual entry while facilitating the “interaction between physicians and pharmacists” that plays such a crucial role in the process. With this technology, healthcare professionals have the potential to reduce the number of adverse drug events that occur and achieve significant improvements in workflow. And of course, there’s the financial issue. One study suggests that adoption of ePrescribing technology could save as much as $27 billion in healthcare costs domestically.

What’s even more promising is that health IT, including ePrescribing, seems to be gaining in popularity among both

physicians and patients. Results from a survey announced at the “Health IT: Unlocking the Potential” summit suggest three times as many Americans favor healthcare providers who use electronic medical records (EMRs) over those who do not, and more than four times as many Americans prefer insurance carriers who have entered the digital age. The study, commissioned by Kaiser Permanente, also shows that 72% of American adults view a computer system as more efficient than a paper one when it comes to managing medical records, and—perhaps even more importantly—73% believe that the benefits offered by EMRs outweigh the potential privacy risks.

During an address at the recent Government Health IT conference in Washington, DC, Robert Kolodner, MD, national coordinator for health IT, stated that the quest for health IT adoption has “made more progress in the last three years than we had in the last decade, or maybe two decades,” adding that we are now at “the tipping point.”

In a statement reported on the Healthcare IT News website, Andy Stern, president of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), said that health IT “can transform healthcare for the benefi t of those who deliver it and those who need it.” SEIU recently joined forces with two other advocacy organizations, AARP and Business Roundtable, to present a case to Congress for further support of health IT adoption. Not only can health IT serve as a “building block” to healthcare reform, but it can result in significant savings, according to Stern, who cited a 2005 RAND study that estimated the potential efficiency savings at more than $77 billion.

The benefits of health IT adoption extend far beyond just cost savings, however. Innovative thinkers are proposing other ways in which health IT can significantly improve patient care.

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