Some CIOs frankly doubt there's any direct monetary savings from automating any part of health care. Digitizing radiology, for example, may save money on film. But Sottile points out that the money is absorbed by the costs to set up high-bandwidth networks to carry X-rays and CT scans around the hospital campus as well as store them in sophisticated archiving systems to allow quick retrieval of old images.
"Seeing financial ROI, that would be like putting Jello on the wall," adds Saunders, the Virtua COO. A more attainable goal, healthcare CIOs agree, is realizing lower costs down the line as automation and data analysis shine a light on more efficient ways to care for patients, and as the hospital begins to move patients more quickly through the system and provide higher-quality care. Faster turnover in the beds, with fewer patients returning with complications, yields savings overall.
Follow the Data, Find the Payoff
To really get some meaning out of the data these applications collect and store, healthcare organizations should use business intelligence tools to analyze scenarios and produce evidence of the best methods of care for specific maladies, says Bill McQuaid, CIO of Parkview Adventist Medical Center.
A decade ago, Parkview didn't even have e-mail. Now it has a full EMR, bar-coded medication dispensing, e-prescribing and fingerprint sign-on for clinical staff. This spring, the organization achieved a best-practice Stage 6 in the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society's seven-stage rating of EMR use.
Through advanced clinical committees, Parkview updates and improves clinical applications to provide better functionality for users and enhanced care for patients. This evidence-based medicine wouldn't be possible without integrating its computerized systems and using BI to analyze the data, McQuaid says.
In 2011, Parkview may be eligible for up to $700,000 in stimulus funds for implementing an EMR in the practices of its affiliated physicians, he says. For the use of EMR and other technology at the hospital itself, he says, "it could be millions." That's an impressive amount for a 55-bed hospital in southern Maine.
Yet despite the best planning and the tightest working relationships between key executives, some observers expect failures along the way. Obama himself admits that none of this will be easy, even with the stimulus package funding in hand. "There will be some slippage along the way," the president says. "There will be hazards and reverses."
In the meantime, there's a lot of chatter online and at healthcare IT conferences about what "meaningful use" means, and there have been plenty of complaints about unclear definitions to date.