Business Technology: Nothing Matters More Than Health Care

Business Technology - January 5, 2004
There's no country in the world where I'd rather be sick than here. Yet I have more sophisticated technology tools to track a fantasy football team than to track the various elements of my own health care.

The pogo stick my wife bought online for our nephew was backed by more technology to make sure it reached the proper house than most nurses have to help them ensure the right drugs get to the correct patient. That's despite the existence of bar-code systems the Food and Drug Administration says could cut medication-dispensing errors in half and save $41 billion in the next 20 years.

My car gets more reminders about the service it needs than I'd get if I had diabetes or heart disease. That's despite the fact that disease-management programs to monitor heart patients reduced emergency-room visits 33% in one study sponsored by the association for health plans and insurers.

Nowhere in business technology are the stakes higher in the coming year than in health care. That's not an easy statement to make, given how much innovation tech leaders in other industries are driving.

But the potential for health care to gather the learning of other industries and leapfrog from a technology laggard to a cutting-edge user is staggering. The opportunity to reduce human suffering while cutting one of the fastest-growing business costs is so great, it's breeding a sense of urgency, even impatience, among leaders in health care, the businesses that pay for and support practitioners, and maybe, just maybe, even government.

This will be a year of progress. Tools, such as electronic intensive-care units that allow remote patient monitoring, E-prescriptions to reduce errors from illegible writing or missed drug interactions, and bar-code scanners to check that hospital patients and their medication match, will move beyond pilot programs. The year will bring the critical mass of experience that makes adopting these tools a strategic necessity.

It will be a year of controversy. As our system wrestles with how to reward the best doctors and nurses for delivering top care, the data sources and formulas people use to measure that performance will face intense scrutiny. Expect howls of protest about "computers deciding what doctors get paid."

It will be a year of political debate. If plans for building a health-care information infrastructure aren't part of the presidential debate, then those who work in (and write about) business technology will have failed. We fret over an electrical grid that fails a couple times a decade, yet we tolerate the utter lack of a health-care information grid that could save lives every single day.

England is embarking on a $16.9 billion, 10-year project to build a patient-centered health-care information infrastructure. Somewhere between that elephant-project approach and our government's minimalist approach of suggesting standards and seeding pilots must lie a faster way to bring about change.

It needs to be a year of impatience. In Boston, two rivals, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Massachusetts and Tufts Health Plan, frustrated by the slow adoption of E-prescriptions, teamed to pledge $3 million to pay doctors to try it for free. We need more such leaps of faith.

Chris Murphy
Executive editor, features
[email protected]

(Bob Evans will return next week.)