Fasten your seatbelt for the revolution, please

Technology drives the big changes in health care

New information technology is driving a revolution in the health care industry — and providers need to adjust, says a health care expert.

"This is not the latest groovy idea. These changes will be fundamental, profound, and long-lasting," says Bruce Fried, JD, partner at the Washington, DC-based law firm Shaw Pittman and chair of its health law group. "They will change the relationships between hospitals, their patients, physicians and the community generally. That being said, how does the hospital community recognize that and take advantage of it?"

Fried spoke of the revolution at the September conference of the American Health Information Management Association. System efficiencies are desperately needed in health care, he says. The Internet and other technologies are now providing an easier way for consumers and providers to gain access to data.

New technology is also reinventing the clinical side of health care. "We are seeing the ability to capture clinical data, to aggregate that data, and to analyze it in a way that will allow us to truly understand what in medicine works [and] what
doesn’t. Who in medicine works and who doesn’t? Why is it that different clinicians have different outcomes with the same sorts of patients, even adjusting for different kinds of risk?" he wonders. "The technologies offer the ability to move medicine from being primarily art to something approaching science."

Providers will see economic efficiency opportunities and opportunities for clinical improvement and advancement. They are also going to see opportunities for improvements in customer satisfaction, Fried says. "Unlike other service organizations, health care has been largely unconcerned with the patient experience, from a customer perspective."

Health care will become a consumer-driven business, he adds. "Consumers are empowered. Consumers have expectations. They are no longer simply going to rely on providers to tell what is best for them. Part of that is going to turn on not only the clinical side but the consumer experience, as well."

The big question: What should you do?

So how should providers prepare for this revolution? Fried offers these recommendations:

• Understand that the opportunities regarding information technology cannot be pursued simply by assigning the responsibility to the chief information officer.

"An institution that is going to take full advantage of information technology and the Internet needs to understand that we are talking about a systemwide change. There needs to be a work group or task force or coordinating committee," Fried says. "All the factors that are integrated into the hospital system need to be involved in thinking about how their relationships with their external audience — patients, vendors, managed care organizations — can be improved."

• Ask fundamental questions.

"Ask, How can we improve? What do we want to get out of new technology? Can we improve clinical care? Can we improve the customer experience?’" Fried says. "When you have a team in place and have addressed the questions that get to what is the business objective, then you can begin to build strategies around taking advantages of these new ways of communicating."

Government mandates, such as those stipulated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), should not distract providers, he says. "Y2K was distracting and expensive. HIPAA will be too. But there is always likely to be an ongoing series of challenges. If you only focus on the challenges, you don’t pursue the promises, as well."

Fried says he expects the Health Care Financing Administration to release regulations that require hospitals to implement systems that reduce medical errors. "The regulations will drive new information technology investments that will not only reduce the incidence of medical errors but will improve the quality of health care that is being delivered."

The overall changes in the industry will be dramatic over the next five years, Fried says. "We will look back and say, Wow, why did we ever do it the other way?’"