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Digital Health

Posted on Dec 24, 2012 by Sergio Ulloa ()  | Tags: Healthcare, Technology, United States

If you visit your doctor today and tell her about your symptoms, chances are she will take notes. On a notepad. Using paper and pencil. Seem a little old fashioned? That's what lawmakers are thinking, too, and that's why one act in particular passed along with Obamacare focuses solely on promoting electronic medical technology - it's called the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, or HITECH, for short.

HITECH was enacted to encourage the use of digital technology by health care providers. The act provides large financial incentives to hospitals that switch to electronic health records, and to doctors who show they are using health IT to improve their quality of care. Through HITECH, Medicare is prepared to offer as much as $2 million to a hospital in their first year of switching to electronic records; likewise, a physician's practice could earn $63,000 per year after demonstrating patient improvements from implementation of better medical technology. In 2015, HITECH will be responsible for not just benefits but penalties as well - health care organizations not making progress in electronic updates will have to pay a fine. But, wait. This is nearly 2013, a digital age where elementary school children download iPhone apps during recess. Don't most hospitals already use advanced electronic systems? Actually, no. Just 35% of U.S. hospitals use electronic health records, and many physicians' practices across the country use no digital system at all when it comes to storing and sharing patient information. This lack of electronic records in the United States is in sharp contrast to international standards - countries like Norway, Australia and the United Kingdom are over 90 percent digitized, compared to only 46 percent of U.S. practices that use electronic medical records. The goal of the HITECH act is to bring U.S. health care into the 21st century. Proponents of the act believe that with better medical technology, patient care will improve, doctors will have to do less work, and health care costs will ultimately decrease There are many, many benefits to digitized health care. In the Emergency Room, doctors can get a better understanding of a patient more quickly thanks to real-time access to that person's electronic medical record - allergies, lab results and facts about past medical conditions will be instantly available. Similarly, if a patient moves to a new doctor, electronic records can instantaneously provide a broad and thorough view of the patient's health history. At the moment, patients are sometimes subjected to unnecessary lab procedures or x-rays, because the physician is unaware that such a test has already been performed. With electronic records, these sorts of unnecessary procedures can be avoided, saving time and money for all. Digital software is also useful at the pharmacy - patient allergies are clearly noted in medical records, and with doctors able to digitally order drugs, the potential for human error (or poor penmanship) in writing a prescription by hand largely disappears. Besides the benefits to individual doctors and patients, electronic health records are a huge asset to public health services. With clear and digitized health records, healthcare analysts can watch out for unusually high occurrences of contagious illnesses and prevent a public health crisis before it begins. In the long run, electronic health records can be used to monitor the effectiveness of treatments across a range of patients; better, more accessible data is already giving doctors and researchers important tools to tackle diabetes, cancer and heart disease. With all of these advantages of electronic medical software, it's no surprise that some healthcare systems have already made the digital leap. Kaiser Permanente, one of the nation's largest healthcare providers, has been working since 1997 to implement a digital system; the Kaiser system has now linked more than 37 hospitals and 16,000 physicians through electronic health records. Opinions regarding the technological upgrade seem quite positive: Kaiser has reported that it is now easier for doctors to schedule appointments and write prescriptions, and that patients have benefitted from the ability to look at their own health history data and have therefore taken a stronger personal lead in staying healthy. According to a Kaiser internal study, since this digital investment there has been a 24 percent decline in heart attacks thanks to data records which stress the importance of early intervention. However, the Kaiser experiment has certainly faced challenges. The switch to electronic health records took five years and cost Kaiser a whopping $4 billion; this cost was even higher when considering the major loss of productivity during initial training in how to use the new software. Indeed, a drop in productivity is what scares away many physicians and hospitals from switching to electronic health records - a small practice simply cannot afford to lose the estimated 50 percent of employee productivity needed to get accustomed to a new digital system. ER workers especially are concerned about losing precious time with patients in exchange for learning the ins and outs of new medical technology. Many of the problems faced by Kaiser in their switch to electronic health records may affect other digitizing institutions as well. And although the Kaiser system is linked under the same software, many people fear that because medical software companies make it a point to avoid collaboration with one another, healthcare providers with different brands of medical technology may find it even more difficult to communicate in the future. Patient privacy is another concern; even though the HITECH act promises that medical data will be protected in patient records and anonymous when used for statistical purposes, electronic health records still lead to at least the potential for inappropriate dissemination of personal health information. Medicare, Medicaid and plenty of lawmakers maintain that even with these possible disadvantages, HITECH's financial incentive is enough to convince hospitals to invest in electronic records and other medical software systems. We can only suppose that if the world of healthcare is anything like the world of everyday life, there's nowhere to go but digital.
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