The health care debate of 2009 is over, but the hard work is just beginning. Cost-curve-bending rhetoric aside, the government can’t make medical care more affordable by waving its hands and saying: “It shall be done.” Now it will be up to the health care community to find ways to deliver better care for more people at lower cost.
For many years, the U.S. health care system has been on a long-term trajectory to bankrupt America. Costs continue to skyrocket as the system’s inefficiencies create ever more drag on quality care. As many as 98,000 people die in hospitals each year as a result of preventable medical errors, with up to 7,000 of these deaths attributed to adverse drug events from medication errors. We can do better.
In many ways, the television show "House" seems to illustrate the challenge we face. Each week, a team of five doctors works around the clock and orders countless long-shot tests to diagnose a single patient suffering from an incredibly rare condition.
That the American health care system doesn’t work this way isn’t the issue. It’s that everyone believes it should, when they’re the ones in the hospital gowns.
And yet if we dig a little deeper, this nothing-like-real-life show may actually help point us toward a real-life solution. The climax of each episode comes when Dr. House finally has all the pieces to the diagnostic puzzle in front of him and suddenly experiences an epiphany regarding the patient’s condition. What if we could give every doctor that power? Could we transform health care by building a system that would fuse patient information, medical best practices and physician knowledge over a secure, global health care grid?
Yes, we can, and the great news is we already know how to do it. In fact, we have successfully conquered these challenges in a number of other industries, by revolutionizing how we access and share information. It’s time we bring that same digital transformation to health care.
I speak from personal experience on this issue, not only as a business executive and technologist, but as a patient who underwent two liver transplants. I’ve watched from the bed as doctors struggled to diagnose and provide treatments with limited information, and I realized it didn’t have to be that way.
A digital transformation of health care would mean the deployment of an integrated, interoperable system for sharing information. Health care providers would have patient information from every place a person has been treated, when it’s needed, right at the point of care. Insurance providers, including Medicare and Medicaid, would be able to reward outcomes and eradicate waste and abuse.
Simply digitizing health care data won’t be enough. Health care already has tons of data. We need to design a system that helps turn data into knowledge. This will shift treatment from art to science, and shift balance sheets from red to black.
Fortunately, this process has begun, although, we are not moving quickly enough. Under the CONNECT program, several federal agencies and the private sector can now seamlessly exchange health information with security, privacy and patients in control of how their information is shared.
For the first time, our active duty and retired service members and their families can have their records follow them from the federal agencies to the private sector where nearly half of their care is provided. It used to take the Social Security Administration (SSA) up to three months just to access the records needed to adjudicate benefits for wounded warriors. Under CONNECT, those records are accessible in seconds.
In the short-term, integrating existing systems and implementing proven imaging and digital content management systems will raise the quality of health care, while also lowering costs and eliminating deadly mistakes.
In the long run, an interoperable, integrated health information system – a secure, privacy-protected “medical Internet” – will lead to transparency in pricing and performance, reducing costs, improving outcomes and saving lives.
Jim Traficant is vice president of Harris Healthcare Solutions, the prime contractor for CONNECT, an open source gateway to the Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN).
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