Healthcare IT isn't living up to the hype

We asked experts to give letter grades for the progress that IT has made so far in improving the following aspects of the U.S. healthcare system. The graders:

Timothy Stettheimer, regional CIO, St. Vincent's Health System

Mary Griskewicz, senior director of ambulatory healthcare information systems, Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society

Bobbie Wilbur, co-director, Social Interest Solutions

Using IT to improve the quality of patient care:

B+ for the implementations (Stettheimer)

A for the technology that's available (Stettheimer)

B- (Griskewicz)

Using IT to lower the cost of care:

B- (Stettheimer)

B- (Griskewicz)

Ensuring the privacy and security of electronic health records to help patients trust the system:

B+ for the technological capabilities (Stettheimer)

C+ for gaining people's trust (Stettheimer)

B (Griskewicz)

Making healthcare computer systems affordable for smaller medical offices:

C (Stettheimer)

B (Griskewicz)

Ensuring that the technology is usable enough for doctors and nurses to work with it easily and productively:

B- (Stettheimer)

B- (Griskewicz)

D (Wilbur)

Sharing data among the various segments of the healthcare industry:

C+ (Stettheimer)

C- (Griskewicz)

A for the technology (Wilbur)

B for the implementations (Wilbur)

C for the adoption of available technology (Wilbur)

To some degree, this is a generational issue. More and more medical professionals, like people in other industries, have grown up with technology or are becoming more comfortable with it.

In the future, Spooner says, caregivers will have no choice but to use computers; they'll be viewed as incompetent if they don't.

A bigger problem than getting healthcare professionals to accept technology is that there's been too much emphasis on computers alone, and not enough focus on streamlining workflows and providing software that could help doctors make better medical decisions, according to an Institute of Medicine report released last year.

Researchers who visited leading healthcare facilities found that "IT applications appear designed largely to automate tasks or business processes. They are often designed in ways that simply mimic existing paper-based forms and provide little support for the cognitive tasks of clinicians or the workflow of the people who must actually use the system."

During the visits, researchers "repeatedly observed healthcare IT focused on individual transactions (e.g., medication x is given to the patient at 9:42 p.m., laboratory result y is returned to the physician, and so on) and virtually no attention being paid to helping the clinician understand how the voluminous data collected could relate to the overall healthcare status of any individual patient," the institute's report said.

There's been a lot of hype suggesting that the benefits of healthcare IT will show up quickly and automatically, Gabriel says. "Simply implementing computer systems won't dramatically improve [healthcare] quality overnight," he says. "Very careful system design and configuration, along with a lot of thoughtful human process improvement, are necessary in order to make the technology truly helpful."

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. You can contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net. Computerworld's Mitch Betts contributed to this article.

This story, "Healthcare IT isn't living up to the hype" was originally published by Computerworld.

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