Healthcare is in the middle of a digital revolution and there’s no stopping it. Company startups are exploding onto the scene, and their management and R&D teams aren’t burgeoning with healthcare expertise, but are coming from places like Disney, Nickelodeon, Google, Facebook, and video game companies.  They are racing to bring existing computer and communications technologies to healthcare, developing new and wildly sophisticated mHealth apps and digital solutions, and focusing on what will be the next, greatest innovation.  Technologies are evolving so rapidly that all the rules haven’t even been written.  The implications for patients/consumers, healthcare professionals, and pharma companies are so huge that I will be breaking down my thoughts on this in a multi-part series.

Will the digital age lead to better healthcare systems?

On my last visit to my primary care physician, he brought his laptop into the examining room.  He explained that all my records would now be stored electronically.  I could now go to a website to get the results of my lab tests when they were available.  He is one of the more than 50% of physicians who use electronic records.

The federal government is currently providing friendly incentives for healthcare facilities to get rid of the paper and pen approach.  By 2015, however, facilities that do not utilize health information technology (HIT) — which is really an umbrella term for management across computerized systems and exchanges between groups that include patients, providers, insurers, and the government — may not receive Medicare reimbursement.

The good with the bad

HIT proponents claim it will enhance patient care quality, prevent medical errors, and reduce healthcare costs through administrative efficiencies, and of course, less paperwork.  It is a major change for healthcare facilities, whether large or small, and does not occur with just a flip of a switch.  It involves planning, deploying, testing, and training; an often long and costly process, particularly for facilities that do not have an in-house IT department.

Various stakeholders — such as developers, researchers, quality-control organizations and lawmakers — are so eager to demonstrate meaningful use of HIT that they may require extensive documentation.  What was developed to save time may end up taking more time to fully implement.

But there are many positives.  The use of electronic medical records is likely to simplify medical management, allow multiple organizations to coordinate patient care (which is ideal for elderly patients or people with chronic conditions like diabetes who are managed by multiple healthcare providers), and it may provide a way to measure quality care. It all sounds good on paper, but how it will affect patient care?  I’ll be talking about that next time.