Can Health IT Save Health Care?

Adding health IT to our current system and claiming that will solve our health care problem is like taking a 1971 Ford Pinto and giving it a new paint job and sound system. It looks cool. It sounds cool. But you’re missing the point.

Health IT can be and should be a piece of the health reform puzzle. And it’s one of the few- and perhaps the only puzzle piece that holds bipartisan support. Even accounting for the initial upfront costs, health IT is touted to save billions of dollars. (And recent new argument: It’ll create jobs.)

This CBO report lists how health IT can:
• Eliminate the use of medical transcription and allow a physician to enter notes about a patient’s condition and care directly into a computerized record;
• Eliminate or substantially reduce the need to physically pull medical charts from office files for patients’ visits;
• Prompt providers to prescribe generic medicines instead of more costly brand-name drugs; and
• Reduce the duplication of diagnostic tests.

In addition to the above mechanisms to cut wasteful care given, there is very little doubt that health IT can improve the quality of care given. From that same CBO report, health IT can:
• Remind physicians about appropriate preventive care;
• Identify harmful drug interactions or possible allergic reactions to prescribed medicines, and
• Help physicians manage patients with complex chronic conditions.
• All problems cost money to fix, so preventing these problems from occurring does save money.

In public circles, the common rhetoric is that this higher quality of care results in lower costs. And this is where I take issue.

Yes, healthy people cost less. If you don’t need a doctor, you don’t cost much (duh). But healthy people don’t undergo high quality care; they don’t undergo any care!

On the other hand, by definition, those with chronic conditions are in constant need of care. High quality care to this population means doing more tests and providing more care more often.

That’s because only 56% of those with chronic conditions receive the recommended level of care. So higher quality care means more care. And in our system built on a la carte financing, more care means more money. Now this a real problem!

Those with one or more chronic condition currently make up 75% of our health care costs. And that number will only rise. (Explaining why is a whole other post)

Health IT can help providers know what care needs to be provided in order to adhere to these standards. Many EMRs in place today force providers to go through check-lists while caring for a patient to ensure that everything that is ‘supposed to be done’ is in fact done. EMRs also allow providers to be proactive and give patients appointment reminders to increase quality (and quantity) of care.

Does this mean we should forgo implementation of health IT? Of course not! Health IT can help us reduce needless spending for needless care and increase needed spending for needed care. It’s just that in weighing these two, spending may prevail.

Health IT is a powerful tool. But we have to recognize its place among other tools on the tool belt.

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