Clarity needed to ensure full potential of healthcare innovation

Innovations in health IT have great promise to improve the quality, cost and patient experience of care. That’s a bold statement that can only be realized if we pave the way for growth and innovation.

At a House Energy and Commerce Health Subcommittee hearing today (Nov. 19), IBM is discussing how the government can best accelerate the growth and use of tech innovations to transform healthcare and improve the health of our nation, its people and our economy.

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With our country aging and the medical profession under pressure to provide top-rate care, encouraging innovation in the United States is more critical than ever. If we can seize the opportunity, technological innovations can make medical practice, hospital care and every other aspect of health care more effective and efficient.

Few areas of health and medicine have gone untouched by the technology, research and innovation generated by IBM over the past century. From the first continuous blood separator that led to treatment for leukemia patients to the first heart-lung machine used to keep patients alive during surgery to the excimer laser used in LASIK eye surgery, IBM has a rich history of addressing healthcare’s most pressing needs.

Today, we believe the world is witnessing an unprecedented phenomenon – the simultaneous convergence of five disruptive technologies: social, mobile, cloud, pervasive instrumentation and advanced analytics.

We are faced, constantly, with a torrent of data. Everything from structured information such as transactional records to a wider variety of unstructured data, still images, video, audio, blogs, tweets, etc. This unstructured data can be tremendously useful if it can be captured and understood by humans, in a timely fashion.

At that same time, we are crossing a new frontier in the evolution of computing and entering the era of cognitive systems. The victory of IBM's Watson on the television quiz show Jeopardy! revealed how scientists and engineers at IBM and elsewhere are pushing the boundaries of science and technology to create machines that learn and interact with people in new ways.

It's no longer about taking a piece of the data and doing a computation. These cognitive systems are looking for the context or the correlations in those pieces of data. Some simple context examples -- these systems can learn that “noses can run” and “feet can smell”; and a “wise man” might be a more welcome dinner guest than a “wise guy.”

These new capabilities could help us penetrate complexity and make better decisions about everything from how to manage cities to how to solve confounding societal problems.

In today’s healthcare environment, where physicians are often working with limited information and little time, the results can be fragmented care and errors that raise costs and threaten quality.

Health care is one of the most data rich environments today with an abundance of unstructured data such as doctor notes, patient records medical annotations, text from medical journals and clinical feedback. Yet 81 percent of physicians spend less than five hours a week reading medical journals.

Cognitive systems could help us to solve complex problems by making the data more digestible in shorter periods of time.

Congress can contribute to these advancements by ensuring there is a regulatory environment that encourages rather than impedes innovation while still protecting the safety of individuals.

The good news is a bipartisan coalition in Congress has taken steps to do just that.

Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and a bipartisan group of colleagues have introduced The SOFTWARE Act (H.R. 3303) – legislation that would bring clarity to the decades old regulatory framework developed before the rise of today’s sophisticated IT technologies.

The bipartisan SOFTWARE Act helps ensure U.S. physicians have access to the most innovative tools to deliver evidence-based care and encourages the continued development of health IT.

By creating an environment that encourages innovation, this legislative clarity also would help ensure that U.S. companies remain leaders in providing these technologies worldwide. IBM and others, large and small, are poised to transform healthcare - this bill would provide the clarity and confidence to do so.

Innovation in IT has the potential for tremendous breakthroughs in healthcare. To improve the health of our nation – in terms of both our people and our economy – we ask that Congress act now to provide the clarity and confidence needed for innovators to deliver their potential.

Padilla is vice president of IBM Governmental Programs.