Health Care & Medical: E-Health Revives Health-Care IT - InformationWeek

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Software // Information Management

Health Care & Medical: E-Health Revives Health-Care IT

Better patient care, more access to specialists, and move to electronic health records are pushing tech innovation

Right now, the bulk of the remote services at Saint Luke's are offered via T1 lines; however, as access to broadband services expands to rural areas, so will Saint Luke's services to remote patients. "We're trying to get the wide pipes that are available in the metro area out to the rural regions, but it's not easy," Wade says, adding that he's optimistic broadband will reach those areas eventually. That would allow more diagnostic-imaging services.

Another key to the success of future telemedicine applications is linked to whether insurance companies will reimburse doctors for remote electronic patient care, such as E-mail exchanges between patients and doctors. "A lot of telemedicine could be even more successful if the doctors are paid," Wade says.

Telehealth initiatives continue to be a focus at UPMC Health System, which has had for the last several years a number of telemedicine programs with the U.S. Department of Defense. UPMC's latest effort is part of a $22 million project in which it's leveraging its E-health records system to develop with Defense a portal for patients with diabetes. The portal will let diabetic patients manage their disease more effectively by providing them with education, interactive tools, and technology to improve communication with their physicians and to track their health, including glucose readings, blood pressure, and cholesterol. The portal will first be offered to civilian patients in western Pennsylvania, and then extended to military patients.

In addition to being a provider of health care through its 20 hospitals and physician practices in western Pennsylvania, UPMC provides health-care coverage to 480,000 members. On top of that, UPMC is one of the region's largest employers, with more than 35,000 employees. Because UPMC plays multiple roles in the health-care community, it's uniquely positioned to prove technology investments work, CIO Dan Drawbaugh says. "What we can do as a provider, payer organization, and employer is serve as a proving site for new technology," he says.

For instance, in the health-care industry of the future, one of the major areas of focus will be consumer-driven health plans, in which consumers and employers customize health-coverage plans, Drawbaugh says. During open enrollment at UPMC this year, the company will begin testing a consumer-driven plan. The My Health plan will offer incentives such as smaller paycheck deductions for patients who take proactive measures to stay well or to improve their health. Although details of the My Health program are still being worked out, in general, UPMC will depend on information from multiple sources to manage the plan, including claims data, risk-assessment analysis, and biometric data such as patient lab results, UPMC's health-plan CIO, Ed McCallister, says.

Wireless technology is increasingly popular in the health-care sector. Doctors and nurses who enter and access information about patients at their bedsides need devices that fit comfortably yet securely into the mobile workflow of clinical care. Wireless technology also is key for patient-safety initiatives, particularly bar-coded drug systems that let nurses electronically scan patients' ID bracelets and drug bar codes to verify that a drug that's about to be administered is the correct medication and dose. The systems also red-flag potential patient allergies and interactions with other medicines.

Although the federal government hasn't mandated that hospitals deploy bar-code scanning systems, it hopes new bar-code regulations that come into effect during the next two years for drugmakers will make it easier and less expensive for hospitals to implement bedside drug-scanning systems. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that the bar-code regulations, when fully implemented, will help prevent nearly 500,000 adverse medical events and transfusion errors over 20 years. The economic benefit of reducing health-care costs, patient suffering, and lost work time caused by types of errors is estimated to be $93 billion over the same period, according to the FDA, which also estimates that half of the drug errors that occur in health-care settings each year are preventable through technologies such as bar-code scanning.

Until the government's latest push, "most hospitals didn't have bar-code systems in their five-year plans," Sutter's Hummel says. "Now they're being added to everyone's workload." Sutter's next stage of bedside-application platforms will be thin clients that provide physicians with true mobility, Hummel says. High on Sutter's list of promising mobile wireless technologies is the data- and voice-enabled handheld BlackBerry device by Research In Motion Ltd.

Radio-frequency identification technology also has caught the attention of health-care companies. Nearly one fifth of those responding to the InformationWeek 500 survey say they've tested and deployed the technology.

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