The Cure for Healthcare?

Just like ER: Healthcare professionals demand mobile intelligence.

The image of doctors rushing around a hospital, consulting hand-held computers for patient information or diagnostic tools that are located halfway around the world isn't just a scene out of a television series. It's happening all over the United States today, and according to two recent studies, it won't be long before even the country doctor will rely on information technology to ensure patients get the best care possible.

One survey, released on October 13th, by Siemens Medical Solutions and the Center for Health Transformation, found that 85% of the healthcare professionals polled believe that healthcare IT is more important than other factors in contributing to improved treatment and handling of patients.

"Industry estimates, and results that some hospitals are already experiencing, indicate that simply automating processes that have been manual in the past results in a 10 to 20% savings," says Jon Zimmerman, vice president of Soarian Health Connections, Siemens Medical Solutions, IT Division. He points to Danville Regional Health System (DRHS) in Danville, Va., as an example of success. The healthcare provider implemented a bar code medication administration application that tracks the prescribing and administration of medicine in real time.

The application has reduced medication errors by an average of about 118 per month. An added online messaging capability has reduced the number of phone calls to the pharmacy by as many as 98 each month. The result of these reductions is that DRHS saves an estimated $943,805 annually.

"The economic principle is simple: Hospitals must invest and increase spending in the short term in order to reap significant benefits and cost savings in the immediate future," says Zimmerman. "[IT] can improve patient care by improving workflow, reducing medication errors, and reducing the length of time it takes to conduct tests and receive results."

A study released by In-Stat/MDR illustrates that healthcare organizations are beginning to realize the value and efficiency of automating processes and are spending more on IT. The study estimates that healthcare IT spending will reach $51 billion this year and will continue to grow at an annual rate of about six percent until 2008. Even more interesting, the small business sector — those healthcare organizations that have five to 99 employees — is expected to be the fastest growing segment.

"In terms of automation, what we're seeing is that the primary growth component, second only to telephony, is application growth," says Stephanie Atkinson, senior analyst at In-Stat/MDR. That application growth seems to be focused on implementing electronic medical records (EMR), computer physician order entry (CPOE) systems, and patient monitoring, says Atkinson.

"Healthcare workers are very mobile," she adds. "So the biggest area of growth is wireless technology." And that means having access to information when and where it's needed.

To accomplish that, Siemens' Zimmerman warns, "As healthcare institutions work to reengineer processes, they need to remember to manage expectations. It is foolish to think that medical professionals, especially physicians, will adopt new technologies and change their workflows overnight. There must be a compelling reason to change."

Here's one: Even the automation of fundamental processes provides great opportunities for return on investment. For instance, Ohio State University implemented a CPOE application and can now process more than 6,000 physician-entered orders every day. This dramatically reduces the turnaround time for medications and other orders and helps ensure timely care and a reduction in medical errors. Given that on average 44,000-98,000 patients die each year because of medical errors, even without a specific dollar figure to pin to those results, it seems a miraculous recovery is taking place.

Jerri L. Ledford is a freelance business and technology writer.