IT Could Help Ailing Health Care Systems

By M.L. Baker  |  Posted 11-23-2005
Health care systems across the developed world are struggling to coordinate care and keep patients informed about what their medications do. That's the conclusion of a report released this month by the Commonwealth Fund.

The study surveyed hundreds of "sicker" adults in each of six countries: Australia, Canada, Germany, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. All patients had recently been hospitalized, had surgery, or reported ongoing health problems. The United States scored markedly worse than other countries in terms of patients' access to health care, financial burdens placed on patients, errors and efficiency, but patients in all countries reported high rates of mistakes, poor care coordination, and otherwise deficient care.

The study did not assess the potential for health IT to address these problems, but many believe that technology can ameliorate these ills.

But health IT is no panacea.

"We look at health IT as a lever to help every health care issue we are facing today," said David Merritt, project director at the Center for Healthcare Transformation, the non-profit group founded by Newt Gingrich.

According to the Commonwealth Fund survey, the US performed particularly poorly in lab-test errors and duplicate testing. Lab error rates were double those in Germany and the UK. In fact, the U.S. had the highest error rates on all seven measures of patient-reported medical, medication, and lab error rates, though not all differences were statistically significant.

Projects are underway in the US to assess how health IT can address most of the issues raised in the study. For example, the creation of a national health information network could eliminate duplicate tests and help clinicians at different sites coordinate care. Technology that lets clinicians remotely monitor patients' heart rate, glucose levels, and other conditions could help manage chronic diseases and cut hospital stays.

One third or more of adults with chronic conditions in each country said that they were not been given a plan to help them manage their ailments.

Patients who saw multiple physicians were much more likely to report an error than patients visiting a single physician. According to the study authors, safety risks are particularly likely to occur when a patient is transferred from one site of care to another. Often, medical information in these cases is not sent at all or arrives only after physicians have started care.

Merritt believes that health IT could help solve these problems and more.

"Anything that is complex and cumbersome and based on mounds and mounds of paper is going to be inefficient compared to something that is automated and electronic."