U.S. Health System Is A 'National Tragedy'

In his LinuxWorld keynote, McKesson's CIO said the lack of modern technology in doctors' offices, hospitals, and research centers is costing Americans their lives.
Randall Spratt, chief information officer for health care IT provider McKesson, painted a bleak picture Tuesday of a U.S. health-care system in which hundreds of people die every two days from avoidable medical errors.

During his keynote at the LinuxWorld Conference in San Francisco, Spratt told attendees that the United States was 17th in the world in terms of life expectancy, despite being a leader in medical research.

The reason for the disconnect is that advancements in treating diseases take as long as 17 years to become mainstream because there is no way for information to travel electronically between hospitals, research centers, and doctors.

The lack of communication is just as bad in the area of patient records. Each time a person enters a different hospital or doctor's office, he has to fill out the same forms to list the medicine he takes and any medical problems because there's no way for patient data to move between people within the medical profession, Spratt said.

As a result, 550 people die every two days in the United States from "avoidable medical errors," Spratt said. Add the fact that millions of Americans today are uninsured or under-insured, and therefore can't get access to proper treatment, and the U.S. medical systems becomes a "national tragedy," he said.

Although the technology to solve these problems exists today, hospitals don't have the money to deploy the computing systems. Because government and insurance companies are constantly reducing reimbursement for medical care, hospitals don't have the money to deploy state-of-the-art networks and IT systems.

"The restriction on reimbursement means every penny in health care is spent twice," Spratt said. "Even though the technology is there, the hospitals can't afford to deploy the technology to save lives."

Hospitals today are running 30-year-old applications. For example, more than half of IT vendors in the health-care industry have to ship software written in MUMPS, a programming language developed in the late 1960s for writing database-driven applications.

Spratt had no answers for getting the money needed to get up-to-date IT into hospitals and doctors' offices. Even though the lack of good technology means people are dying, there hasn't been much of a public outcry because the deaths are going unnoticed.

"We tolerate it, because it's so quiet," Spratt said. "It's one person at a time. It's one incident at a time."

Open source technology such as Linux is helping because it doesn't require expensive software licenses. In addition, the technology is reliable and scalable.

In general, every technology purchase by a hospital has to have a definable return on investment. "Every investment that a hospital makes must pay off," Spratt said. "They're so tightly constrained that they can't afford to make a mistake."

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