Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Digitizing Health Care the Hard Way 

Moving health care into the computer age continues to be a popular cause among health care gurus, pundits and policy wonks. 

The April 30, 2012 issue of The Boston Globe had quite a long article on the subject, titled Goodbye, Paper.  The subhead read “Electronic health records are being used in hospitals and doctors’ offices.  So how are they doing?  Do the e-records protect and promote patient safety?” 

The answer was equivocal.  Some studies suggest that they do while others claim to identify adverse unintended consequences, like ordering more expensive tests (presumably because computers make it easier to do so). 

In my opinion, the wrong question was asked.  The question should have been “Do providers who seriously try to improve patient safety find e-records helpful?” 

Surely the answer to that question would be a resounding ‘yes.”  Collecting data, massaging it and making it widely available is an integral part of safety improvement efforts and is what computers do well. 

The bulk of the effort to expand the use of computers in health care continues to be based on the belief that doing so will result in better care at lower cost.  Eventually that may happen, but it will take a long time and the cost will be enormous. 

The right way is to insist that providers get serious about improving quality and containing cost.  Once they do, they will quickly learn that computers can make the job a lot easier.

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