Healthcare IT: No Quick Cure

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

It's been 19 years since the prestigious Institute of Medicine urged greater adoption of computer systems in healthcare, and more than six years since then-President George W. Bush declared, "By computerizing health records, we can avoid dangerous medical mistakes, reduce costs and improve care."

So, how are we doing so far?

There are positive signs at places like Methodist Dallas Medical Center, which has a nearly foolproof way to make sure the right drug gets to the right patient in the right dose at the right time: It uses bar-code technology to clear all medications through a computerized program.

Pamela McNutt, CIO at Dallas-based Methodist Health System, says the technology means the hospital can avoid drug errors, which are responsible for an estimated 100,000 deaths nationwide each year.

That success encouraged McNutt to push forward with other IT initiatives. "The reason we continue getting everything into an electronic format is so we can analyze our data, look at what's going on for efficiency reasons and monitor quality as it's happening," she says. "And the only way you can do that is through the use of structured data."

While there are many success stories, progress in using IT to improve patient care and cut costs has been slow. Research suggests that healthcare IT has a long way to go to match the hype:

  • Only 12% of U.S. hospitals had adopted electronic health records (EHR) as of last year, a modest increase over an adoption rate of 9% in 2008, according to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health.
  • A study by University College London found that many EHR projects fail, and "the larger the project, the more likely it is to fail." Researchers say the systems can improve auditing and billing but may make primary clinical care less efficient.
  • Experts from the Institute of Medicine who visited healthcare facilities last year found that "care providers had to flip among many screens and often among many systems to access data; in some cases, care providers found it easier to manage patient information printed or written on paper."

Healthcare CIOs say they're optimistic that IT can help to dramatically improve patient care, but it will take time. And the types of challenges that IT leaders face in all industries -- such as high equipment costs and end-user resistance -- could limit what IT can actually deliver and how fast it can do so.

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