Thompson: Health Care Needs More IT - InformationWeek

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Thompson: Health Care Needs More IT

The Secretary of Health and Human Services told the World Healthcare Congress that technology can help reduce errors, resulting in fewer deaths and lower costs.

Four years into the 21st century, the health-care industry still depends on pencils, papers, manila folders, and memo sheets as primary tools for getting its work done, says U.S. Health and Human Services secretary Tommy Thompson. Instead, he said Tuesday, the nation's health-care delivery system needs to more widely incorporate business practices used in other industries, especially information technology.

During a speech at the World Healthcare Congress in Washington, Thompson told attendees that supermarket clerks rely on technology to ensure they give customers the right change, without mistakes. Yet, the Institute of Medicine estimates that 98,000 patients die--and even more are disabled each year--due to errors that can be largely prevented by technologies such as computerized prescription ordering, drug bar-code systems, and electronic patient medical records, Thompson said.

The adoption of those and other technologies in health care "could save [the U.S.] $100 billion" a year, through reduced deaths and disabilities, he said.

Because the government's Medicare program makes the federal government "the country's largest insurance company," the feds are taking a lead role in trying to make it easier to for more health-care providers to adopt these technologies, he said. The ability to share patient information electronically can help doctors and other providers to make better-informed decisions and spot potential mistakes before they happen. However, without data and other technical standards, the sharing of patient information electronically among health providers is often difficult or impossible.

Over the last year or so, Health and Human Services has adopted five key standards related to formats and transmission of patient data, so that electronic medical records can be more easily shared among caregivers. That includes adopting SnoMed as the federal government's standard lexicon for medical diagnosis and treatments. The government is also offering the health-care industry use of SnoMed free of licensing fees.

In addition, the agency is also close to adopting six more IT-related standards for patient data and transmission, Thompson said. The government doesn't mandate the use of those standards by health-care providers; however, it's hoping the industry will follow because the government is the nation's largest payer of health care through Medicare and Mediaid.

Not only can these technologies help doctors and other clinicians reduce errors, cut paper work, and improve quality of care, they can also help make it easier for public health officials to detect outbreaks of diseases, such as SARS and Monkey Pox, and possible incidents of biological or chemical terrorism, Thompson said. Health and Human Services and President Bush in his budget have requested $100 million for projects that use IT related to improving health care, he added.

Jeff Goldsmith, president of Health Futures Inc, .a consulting firm focused on helping business clients plan for future health trends and a speaker at the conference, says he believes that in order for electronic medical records' use to become more widespread in health care, the government will need to mandate that providers convert their electronic medical records to standards, rather than merely encourage them to do so.

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