Opinion: IBM has already become a powerful player in health IT. Now the question is, will the giant play nice?
On Tuesday, IBM launched an effort to build a prototype infrastructure for health information exchange, complete with speeches by the nation's health IT czar. On Wednesday, IBM said it would acquire HealthLink Inc., a highly regarded health IT consulting company with over 500 consultants. And on Thursday, IBM announced a $400 million deal with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to improve health IT.
The announcements are designed to generate publicity. The so-called IHII (Interoperable Health Information Infrastructure) project will have about 20 full-time staff, and won't link actual health care providers.
Sure, that's the size of many small technology companies, but it hardly registers for a company with some 300,000 employees. The deal with UPMC extends over eight years, with both entities contributing funds, and with a guaranteed joint investment of only $50 million.
And with health IT lagging behind other industries both in terms of the amount of investment and technology's pervasiveness, IBM is hardly the only technology company to decide health IT is the next growth area. Accenture acquired CapGemini earlier this year.
Nonetheless, the impact IBM will have on health IT is very real. With the acquisition of HealthLink, all 12 health care companies in the Fortune 500 are IBM customers. Two months after IBM called for the government to take a firmer handin promoting interoperable standards, the health IT czar was at IBM's research facility, lauding the company's efforts to, among other things, find gaps and conflicts in current health IT standards.
In general, this should be cause for celebration. As IBM loves to point out, U.S. health care costs are spiraling and health IT might help bring them under control. (The company is less likely to point out that people in Canada and Europe pay less per capita for health care and live longer, and highly inefficient bureaucracy, high-tech medical services, and high doctors' salaries, not lack of health IT, are generally blamed for the contrast.)
People who work on their feet with living, breathing patients constantly complain that programmers hunched over keyboards haven't the foggiest notions of what a clinician's day is like.
IBM seems to understand where the gaps could crop up. James Kaufman, head of the new IHII effort at IBM Almaden Research, expressed pleasure at the HealthLink acquisition and the ready access to domain expertise.
He admitted that he hadn't met anyone yet, but said, "I'm sure we're going to have close collaboration. You can only benefit when you work with the real MDs and the real nurses."
Likewise, the long-term collaboration with UPMC should go far to educate IBM, and they've set some firm goals to measure progress. The project will not just make information more available, and therefore more useful, to clinicians and patients, but will create new research tools to improve public health. Other projects, like the cancer bioinformatics grid, can let medical data drive basic research.
There is also cause for worry. Health IT is stuffed with small technology companies that have excelled in small, specialized niches.
They are often very good at what they do, and have taken years to figure out the quirks of patient identification, tracking particular kinds of equipment or analyzing complex files. But clinicians, and even clinical informaticians, hate dealing with multiple technology vendors, and IBM could easily usurp many effective companies.
On the other hand, a bigger presence from the big players could actually give small companies more common standards and platforms to latch in their products, and Kaufman made clear that IHII's efforts would be open source.
However, markedly absent from the latest raft of IBM press releases has been mention of the various collaboratives that health IT groups have formed to work out exactly what standards the industry should be using.
IBM has already become a powerful player in health IT. It will only become more so. Now the question is, will the giant play nice?
M.L. Bakeris health IT and biotechnology editor for Ziff Davis Internet's Enterprise Edit group.
This article was originally published on 04-29-2005