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Doctors vs. Doctors with IT Support—Who's Better?

New Study Shows the Value of Health IT

The next time one of your employees goes to the hospital or clinic, it’s likely that the only computer they’ll see is the one used by the billing department to make sure their health plan picks up the tab. And what’s wrong with that, you ask?

IMPORTED: __media_6D1D4541A6854E27B5562B721C62BE49_w_250_h_166_as_1.jpg Everything, says research by Ruben Amarasingham, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School. Focusing on a diverse group of hospitals in Texas, Amarasingham’s study found that facilities that use automated support systems such as electronic notes, test results, and decision support provide, on average, much better care at a lower cost. Translation: wiring the health care system can save your company money.

Some of the differences between wired and unwired medical institutions are striking. Wired institutions produce:

  • a 15 percent lower mortality rate among cardiac patients; 
  • a 16 percent overall reduction in complications; and
  • savings of $100 to $500 per patient per episode of care.

Why does health information technology (IT) make such a difference? Consider the physician’s daily challenge: keeping abreast of medical advances; matching therapy to patient; coordinating drugs; and communicating with the treatment team. Now multiply that by a caseload of 25 or 30 patients per day, and the size of the data management and communication challenge starts to come into focus.

But for computers, this sort of data management is a snap. Do you need to know something about a particular illness? Or a patient’s medical history? Or whether the nurse gave your patient his meds last night? A well-designed health IT system can answer questions like these, sometimes when they’re not even asked.

“Making good medical decisions requires that a physician know everything about a patient’s illness, everything about available treatment options, everything about the patient’s medical history, and every action taken by other members of the treatment team. It’s just not realistic,” said Amarasingham. “But the right IT system can put all that information at their fingertips right when they need it.”
Such systems exist but, for the most part, not in the U.S. The rest of the developed world has a big head start in terms of integrating information technology into the practice of medicine. In tiny New Zealand, for instance, 87 percent of physicians already use health IT. In the U.S., the figure is 17 percent.1

But that may be about to change. The Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act calls for a $19 billion program to support improvements in the nation’s health IT infrastructure, with some of that money going directly to medical groups to help defray the cost of purchasing such systems.

The potential upside of widespread adoption of health IT is significant. A RAND study estimated annual savings of $77 billion upon full implementation of a health IT system in the U.S.2 And of course people will get better care and live longer, healthier lives too.

Purchasers of health care have a simple mechanism by which to encourage the adoption of health IT—steer employees toward health plans, hospitals, and clinics with better health IT.

“Implementing a comprehensive health IT system takes an enormous amount of money and organizational energy,” said Amarasingham. “We need to reward organizations for making this kind of an investment.”

1 Retrieved May 23, 2009 from Commonwealth Fund Web site 
2 Hillestad et al., "Can Electronic Medical Record Systems Transform Health Care? Potential Health Benefits, Savings, and Costs,” Health Affairs, September/October 2005 24 (5):1103–17.

Related Links:

  • For a synopsis of Dr. Amarasingham’s study, click here.

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