Information Technology Will Save Health Care

Not all technology causes woe in the health care system. While some new products increase costs and decrease access and quality, others – specifically, health information technology (HIT) products – facilitate safe, timely, efficient, effective, equitable, and patient-centered care. Ultimately, these HIT products will help patients, providers, and policymakers improve health care and remedy the woes facing our health system.

According to the Institute of Medicine (IOM), a national academy of leaders in biomedical science, medicine, and health, the American health care system “does not provide consistent, high-quality medical care to all people.” This passage is from the IOM’s 2001 publication Crossing the Quality Chasm, and still applies today. Uneven costs, quality, and access – these continue as America’s health care system woes. To resolve them the IOM argues that system stakeholders like patients, providers, and policymakers must strive for “six aims of improvement.” Specifically, health care must be safe, timely, efficient, effective, equitable, and patient-centered (STEEEP).

Some technology can hinder achievement of the STEEEP aims. These new products increase cost and complexity without improving access and quality. For example, robot-aided surgery is widely available, yet whether the technique’s benefits outweigh the significant costs of a robot remains controversial.

Other technologies boost progress toward STEEEP goals. These products decrease spending on health care while bolstering access and quality. This technology is HIT. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines HIT as “exchange of health information in an electronic environment.” This broad definition encompasses HIT’s diverse forms including electronic medical records, internet-based data exchanges, and online medical resources.

Examples of how various HIT products already foster STEEEP success demonstrate their potential for resolving our health care woes:

Safe: Public, crowd-sourced information on medical treatments help avoid injuries.

Timely: Internet-connected prescription bottle caps reduce delays in medication delivery by reminding patients to take their pills.

Efficient: Networked “e-Referral” systems avoid wasted interactions between consulting and referring doctors by ensuring all necessary information is available.  

Effective: GPS-enabled inhalers track asthma attacks and help providers design asthma management strategies based on scientific knowledge.

Equity: Community health data tracking helps providers target health care disparities.

Patient-centered: Mobile applications consider patient preferences by offering health care feedback outside of the clinic.

Despite their promise, the HIT interventions listed above only benefit narrow populations. This is because the products remain in beta or pilot stages, or require significant start-up capital or technology expertise. Fortunately though, these conditions are changing. Broadband internet access is spreading, mobile devices are becoming more powerful, doctors and patients are gaining tech-savvy, and investors are recognizing the potential of HIT. These changes will allow HIT innovators to expand the scope of their products, help health care stakeholders achieve STEEEP aims, and ultimately resolve our health system care woes.

Photo Credit: Ano Lobb

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Sam Wertheimer

Sam works as a research assistant in the health group at a a non-partisan think tank. He graduated from Stanford in 2007 and received an MPH from The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice in 2009. Opinions expressed here are his own.

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