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Down To Business: Can The Healthcare Industry Handle All This IT?

The hope is that the platforms healthcare providers are being dragged into deploying today will serve as the foundation for future innovation.

The recent HIMSS11 trade show, the premier event in healthcare IT, exuded all the trappings of a thriving industry: more than 1,000 exhibitors, from giants like IBM, Microsoft, and Hewlett-Packard to myriad niche providers; a record 31,000 registered attendees; and a first-rate conference and education program featuring a who's who of expert presenters. But if last year's HIMSS event in Atlanta had a "there's no stopping us now!" post-recession vibe to it, this year's event in Orlando wasn't so sure of itself. Is healthcare IT investment and innovation a long-term, sustainable phenomenon, or are things moving too fast for the industry's good?

Glen Tullman, CEO of $1.4 billion-a-year health IT vendor Allscripts, calls this nothing less than "the single fastest transformation of an industry in the history of the United States." David Hamilton, senior VP of Siemens Medical Solutions USA and a 30-year healthcare IT veteran, including 10 years as a CIO, calls it "the wild wild West." Another exec at HIMSS (Healthcare Information and Management System Society) calls the industry's data integration challenges "a Tower of Babel." Lightning speed plus massive complexity are bound to produce at least some degree of angst and confusion.

Consider that the federal government is spending tens of billions of dollars to get healthcare providers to digitize their records and processes, and that most of that money must be spent (and work completed) in the next two or three years. And couple that stimulus with new mandates and deadlines tied not only to meaningful use of electronic health records, but also to healthcare claims transactions (HIPAA 5010), broad coding and procedures (ICD-10), and other areas. The healthcare industry is effectively squeezing a decade's worth of IT advances into a five-year window.

Healthcare IT feels a little bit like a bubble: legions of startup vendors in ridiculously niche sectors (iPad apps for radiologist assistants?) seeking to be acquired; care providers scrambling to find enough technical talent to satisfy the government and regulatory edicts.

HIMSS CEO H. Stephen Lieber, in a statement released Feb. 21 to kick off the organization's annual event, delivered something of a mixed message on the pace of healthcare IT investment. While emphasizing that each healthcare provider must be left to its "own different schedule" and "own strategic plan" when it comes to deploying IT, Lieber insisted "there is no rationale for delaying this" investment. Huh?

In HIMSS's annual leadership survey of U.S. hospital IT executives, half the respondents cited achieving meaningful use of certified healthcare IT products as their top priority, up from 42% last year. That finding elicited an odd response from Craig Stilwell, a VP with survey sponsor Citrix Systems. "Healthcare systems are making significant IT investments to meet new mandates and requirements, suggesting they have clear plans for the future," Stilwell said in a statement. Really? Don't mandates and requirements tend to induce short-term responses rather than inspire long-term strategies?

The hope, especially among technology vendors and policy-makers, is that the IT platforms most healthcare providers are being whipped into deploying today will serve as the basis for future innovations: new services, more efficient operations, and more informed decision making.

Think about the SAP and Oracle ERP platforms built 15 years ago--huge, unwieldy, often overwhelming undertakings that many companies were pulled into, kicking and screaming. Today, they serve as the technology backbones for all manner of business processes. More recently, we've seen an explosion in social media, led by consumer sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and now leading to enterprise versions. The "social business" movement is far from orderly, but enterprises are banking on their somewhat haphazard investments today paying dividends tomorrow.

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