Health IT Innovations Organize People, Not Data

The biggest innovation in health IT of 2006 has nary a wire, a chip or a radio signal. If 2004 was rightly hailed as beginning of the boom in health IT, 2005 must be hailed as the year of committees.

2005 saw the Department of Health and Human Services’ Michael Leavitt moving into some of the limelight that health IT czar David Brailer once enjoyed. The Administration reasonably wants to be closer to health IT, generally seen as a bright spot in an otherwise bleak picture of health care in the United States.

And Leavitt, began with the spotlight on talk. With much fanfare, he formed the American Health Information Community (AHIC) to promote high-level discussions among decision makers. Though Leavitt heads the AHIC, it has no authority in itself, but it does provide a forum for large employers, technology companies, and high-ranking officials from Medicare and the Department of Veterans Affairs to share concerns.

Of a spate of federal grants awarded toward the end of the year, the biggest went to support committees charged with working out interoperability protocols, technology standards, and harmonizing state privacy laws. In some cases, the award spurred the formation of the committee.

Other grants went to local efforts, but many of the recipients were RHIOs (regional health information organizations), which formed to help share health information within a community. Many medical errors and unnecessary procedures arise because one doctor doesn’t learn what another doctor has done. RHIOs would help information travel with patients as they move from general practitioners to specialists to hospitals.

At its most basic level, the job of each committee is identifying and circumventing barriers to effective use of health IT by hospital clinicians, outpatient clinicians, pharmacists, patients and payers.

Some analysts dismiss the creation of the committees as so much hype. After all, it is finances, not technology that top the list of hospital CEOs’ worries. Others argue that the industry cannot move forward if payers, providers and vendors don’t have a formal means of reaching consensus.

But some industry executives say they see signs of real change, particularly in the ability to get access to usable health care data. This is a “big step in the industrialization of health care,” said Steve Lorenc, GM of GE Healthcare.

Kevin Hutchinson, CEO of SureScripts and a member of AHIC, is another optimist. He says talk is making a difference. “What’s nice is that all the stakeholders seem to be coming together with a collaborative attitude. In years past, payers might have been disjointed with the hospitals, who didn’t even consider that the pharmacies were part of the equation.”

Another big change he’s seen is regional hospitals that want to work with each other to get technology into the hands of community-based physicians. He’s confident that, eventually, changes to federal law will enable such help and encourage collaboration, since the law will require that any donated technology allow community practice to connect to all regional hospitals. “With all the interoperability, it doesn’t matter who gives you the technology,” he said, so regional hospitals are coordinating their efforts.

Of course, whether the process of gathering all the stakeholders around a common table means that they will bring something to the table is something that only time will tell.

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