Giving Health Care a Dose of IT

Hospitals, medical clinics and doctors in private practice have long discussed the need to improve health care with information technology—such as computerizing patient records—but few have done it because of the cost and complexity. The Fallon Clinic in Massachusetts is among those taking action and making the vision of high-tech medicine a reality.

In 2005, the Fallon Clinic, which has more than 20 medical facilities in the Worcester area, began migrating from a 12-year-old custom-built electronic medical record system to a more fully featured EMR application, which offers e-prescription, and a clinical decision-support system that provides physicians with best practices for care. It can, for example, warn doctors if prescribed drugs could result in adverse reactions.

One doctor credits the new EMR software with helping him detect prostate cancer early for several patients. He took several years of blood tests, and with a few keystrokes, created a chart from the raw data, and discovered that while the results were within the normal range, they were going up—a sign the patients could be at higher risk for developing cancer.

“We caught the cancer early using the EMR,” says Dr. Larry Garber, the Fallon Clinic’s medical director for informatics. “We could see what was happening over time, something we couldn’t do properly prior to the system. It’s allowed me to provide patients with better care and avoid making mistakes.”

The health care industry has been slow to adopt electronic health records and other new IT initiatives because of costs and the uncertainty about return on investment. But that’s starting to change as early adopters achieve results. These technologies streamline health care operations, reduce medical errors, and give doctors and nurses timely access to patient information, resulting in more cost-effective and vastly improved patient care.

Today, 13 percent of physicians use basic EMRs to store clinical notes, order prescriptions, and view lab and imaging results. Only 4 percent have fully functional systems that include clinical decision-support systems, according to a 2008 study by the New England Journal of Medicine. Adoption is on the rise, however: Sixteen percent have purchased EMR systems but have yet to install them; another 26 percent plan to buy a system in two years.

Provision of electronic health records is just one piece of the health care IT puzzle, but it’s an important one because it drives related IT initiatives, such as mobilizing the work force with wireless devices and digitizing paper processes into an electronic workflow, says Barry Runyon, a health care analyst for Gartner, a research firm in Stamford, Conn. Cutting-edge health care providers have begun to develop portals, giving their patients the ability to pay their bills, schedule appointments, view lab results and even consult with their doctors online.

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