Electronic records makes ObamaCare launch look easy

The “glitchy” launch of HealthCare.gov is an obvious front-page story. But when it comes to health and information technology, we face much bigger challenges than the website for ObamaCare. Though electronic medical records (EMRs) are often viewed as the best way to bring health technology into the 21st century, they are just a part of a vitally needed health technology infrastructure.

Health information technology is notoriously behind the times. To put things into perspective, health sectors are just starting to use technology on a large scale that other industries adopted in the 1980s. Back then, businesses started moving paper-based processes, like HR forms and payroll, to separate systems that simply collected information electronically.

ADVERTISEMENT
EMRs are the modern-day equivalent of the technologies that banks and manufacturers were putting into place decades ago. They collect information, but they are not easily customized, a feature that is especially needed in the healthcare world. Nor can most EMRs do a comprehensive analysis of the information once it is collected.

This is not to say that EMRs are unimportant. On the contrary, they are a critical first step to modernizing health information technology. And the Obama administration’s incentive payments for EMRs, which totaled more than $15 billion as of September, have helped speed the adoption of this important technology.

But while the ability to collect, store and manage patient data on an EMR is vital, it has its limitations. For example, many EMRs dictate exactly how activities are performed, like when a healthcare professional needs to take and record a patients’ blood pressure. And EMRs are limited to the types of reports they can generate. As of now, collecting the valuable information that each unique healthcare provider needs often requires costly customizations. 

There is a better way. It is time to start unlocking the technological power that is available when a third party steps in to take the information collected and turns it into something useful. Then, and only then, can we help tailor an EMR to a specific physicians’ way of practicing, analyze the data to spot trends or immediately flag important information regarding a patient’s prescription as soon as the doctor orders it.

Consider these basic examples. If you or a loved one has been to the hospital in the past few years, you already know that at most facilities, you will be filling out many different forms, often asking for repetitive information. Even if the hospital already uses an EMR system, it is often difficult to scan documents into the EMR, much less get the written information — such as your telephone number — logged into the correct database.

Or think about the doctors who has been practicing for decades and now do not want to follow the dozens of prompts they might get from an EMR, asking them if they’ve checked a patient’s height and weight in the exact order that the EMR offers them. Right now, it can be very costly to customize EMRs to adapt to a particular physician’s preferences, but with the proper back-end technologies, processes can be easily tailored. That is important, because physician adoption of health technology is necessary for success.

HealthCare.gov will most likely be fixed in the coming months, and people will be able to sign up for health insurance online. But once they get to the doctor, they’ll likely be facing a bigger technological deficiency, even if they can’t see it. The good news is that we have the ability to build these systems specifically for the healthcare world today. We just need the investment.

Beck is the president and CEO of the IQ Business Group, a leading provider of information management solutions for highly regulated industries and the public sector.