IT's Role In Health Care - InformationWeek
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IT's Role In Health Care

Better use of technology can improve health care, which means better health for Americans.

The Department of Health and Human Services touches nearly every life in the United States, providing us a unique role to assist our fellow citizens. My goal as secretary is to do everything I can to ensure that Americans are strong, healthy, and independent.

For most folks, this means improving our Medicare, Medicaid, and welfare programs or enhancing medical research. Not too many think about improving information technology. But I've learned that better use of technology can improve health care, which means better health for Americans and a higher quality of life. I want to make sure my department is fully on the side of health-care information that's accurate, timely, and convenient to patients, providers, and researchers.

The greatest health-care system the world has ever known operates in the United States. But as great as our system is, we all know it can be even better. We must improve the systems in which our hard-working, dedicated health-care professionals provide care and services. To do so, we should focus on enhancing communication between frontline caregivers and all members of the health-care team, and using evidence-based interventions in medical care and health promotion.

We need a national health-information system that automatically gives health professionals access to the patient-specific medical knowledge required for diagnosis and treatment--the latest research results from medical journals, the most up-to-date guidelines, the appropriate public-health notifications. The system also must empower consumers, letting them communicate with their doctors electronically to receive test results and perhaps even to record what they eat and when and how much they exercise. And this health-information system must be able to do all these things regardless of where the physician and patient are so that an ill or injured person who's traveling can get care as safely away from home as at home.

To help reach these goals, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, will support research and demonstrations to evaluate which components of health information technology (e.g., computerized order entry and computerized reminders) are most effective in promoting safe, high-quality health care. In addition, the federal government has adopted five key health-information standards, and we're close to adopting six more. We have the private sector advising us as well.

To improve our understanding of the limitations of new drugs, we proposed standardizing reporting formats for adverse events resulting from the use of approved drugs and biological products. This will allow manufacturers and regulators to take corrective actions more quickly and help consumers make more informed decisions about treatments.

The government also has created a common medical language available without charge to all members of the health-care community. This uniform lexicon of treatments and diseases, called Snomed (the Systematized Nomenclature of Medicine), will improve quality of care for Americans by enabling providers and every member of the health-care community to communicate electronically with one another.

Snomed and the other standards will allow for easy transmission, exchange, collation, and aggregation of electronic records from multiple sources. This also will make it easier for public-health officials to detect outbreaks and possible bioterrorist attacks.

The Department of Health and Human Services will continue to encourage the free-market development of standards necessary for the exchange of electronic health information. Further developments will continue to emerge in connection with the HHS-sponsored national health-information system project. Be sure to visit our Web site.

Tommy Thompson is secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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