RealTime IT News

Health IT Joins The 21st Century

You probably remember the last time you bought a computer. And you probably know exactly how much it cost you.

But the same probably can't be said for when you got your last tetanus shot, or how much your last medical procedure really cost.

According to health care industry experts and policy makers, Americans are dangerously disconnected from vital information about their own health and blind to the real costs of health care in the U.S., which has risen from 4 percent of GDP in 1950 to 16 percent today.

The costs are more than simple macroeconomic indicators; skyrocketing health insurance premiums are often cited as the main reason businesses can't afford to give employees better wages.

The impact of this ignorance is even more profound; more than 400 refugees from Hurricane Katrina arrived in Houston-area hospitals needing to continue their chemotherapy treatments, but couldn't tell health care providers about the current state of their treatments.

But that might change soon.

Employers, as well as state and federal agencies, are pushing a variety of IT-based initiatives that may well begin having tangible effects within five years. Those efforts are concentrated in two areas: data collection and payment systems.

Networking the system

The health care industry has been widely credited with adopting advanced clinical technology, but it is also criticized for very poor penetration levels of management IT.

As an industry, health care spends between 2 percent and 4 percent of revenues on IT infrastructure, compared with 10 percent for the financial services industry, according to Ron Paulus, CTO and innovation officer for Geisinger Health System.

Geisinger has created a network that provides health care for 40 Pennsylvania counties, making patient health records accessible at any affiliated hospitals and participating physicians.

Geisinger also collects data on 42 different medical processes and publishes scorecards allowing patients to make informed decisions about their treatment options.

The data collection also serves another critical purpose, which is to promote better quality health care and, as a result, lower costs.

Paulus told internetnews.com that Geisinger is "looking to establish best practice standards" in health care by getting commitments from its affiliated doctors and hospitals to adhere to those standards 100 percent of the time.

"We're so confident about it that, if there are any complications requiring readmission, we will not charge anything for that follow-up care... We've seen some pretty remarkable increases in performance."

However, Geisinger is in a fairly unique position as the major health care facility for over 2 million people. Now, several states and the federal government are trying to replicate this model through the creation of networked regional health information organizations (RHIOs).

On Jan. 22, IBM  will report on a pilot project funded by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONCHIT) connecting a RHIO in upstate New York to a hospital in Raleigh, N.C., and another smaller RHIO in rural North Carolina.

"The goal is to allow any authorized person to see patient data on any patient in the system," explained Joe Josenski, program director for health care and life sciences at IBM Research.

The ONCHIT has funded three other similar pilots across the country. New York is one of several states with its own health IT (HIT) program, and has budgeted $1 billion to fund a variety of health information initiatives.

In the private sector, IBM announced that it would invest $20 million in two separate projects involving health care infrastructure.

IBM has also contributed over 160,000 lines of code to an open source initiative for networking health care networking across the country.

Google  is also connected to health. It recently launched Google Co-op, which allows individuals to rate physicians and physicians to recommend trusted online sources of medical information.

Next page: The cost of performance