The use of information technology in the healthcare industry, commonly referred to as health IT, continues to expand and provide support to health professionals. Integrating IT in health administration has proven to reduce overhead costs, enhance patient care and increase efficiency in medical offices and hospitals throughout the country. As with any innovative upgrade, there have been some concerns regarding the cost of developing new programs and the complexity of establishing common standards across the medical field. Given the diversity of healthcare needs throughout the country, the task of implementing health IT is far from simple and will require cooperation from both the public and private sectors.
One of the major complaints from healthcare administrators has been the difficulty of upgrading patient records into electronic health records (EHR). Although most agree that EHRs will eventually save time and increase the quality of patient care, the process of transferring written records into an electronic form is grueling and time-consuming. Healthcare administrators must choose a system that not only works for their office, but also is compatible with other health professionals, for example, hospitals or insurance companies. Cost is another critical factor for determining how and when to fully implement information technology into the healthcare community. Many health care facilities are slow to invest in IT because start-up is costly and benefits are uncertain. Additionally, implementation requires technical skills that many in the healthcare industry do not possess and/or do not have the time to learn. Some even argue that the use of electronic systems and computers diminishes the personal relationship between physician and patient.
Despite these lingering concerns, most of the healthcare industry is committed to the integration of more health IT in the workplace. To resolve some of the problems associated with the high cost of implementation, the federal government has offered subsidies and several grants to fund health IT. Through Title XXX of the Public Health Act, funds have been made available to support the healthcare industry for training programs and startup costs of adopting more efficient technologies for use in administration. The U.S. government has also encouraged the industry to streamline implementation of IT and offered support through the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC). Some of ONC’s initiatives include: assistance for rural communities; the establishment of standards and best practices in health IT and cyber security; and, information for state-specific health initiatives to promote effective information sharing.
Though there is broad use of IT throughout the medical field, in many cases technology serves to benefit healthcare administration. Key areas of interest for administrators include the use of IT to maintain patient records,track appointment history and scheduling, billing and insurance data management, and medication regulation.
Tracking a patient’s medical records electronically can be beneficial for a number of reasons. If implemented properly, effective use of electronic information about patients can lead to better care in a timely manner. This is particularly important when patients are under the care of multiple doctors. Having access to information about the patient should improve the quality of care administered. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that between 44,000-98,000 people die each year as a result of medical errors. As health IT becomes common practice and information is automated and shared, those numbers should decrease. Barcoding has been used to track medications, dosage, and treatment plans for patients. Having this information available, regardless of the medical professional attending, is a crucial factor for preventing unwarranted medical errors.
With respect to preventative care, it is crucial to have information regarding a patient’s history in order to develop a proper plan of action for maintaining health. Medical professionals are teaming up with insurance companies and other healthcare providers to connect patients to IT resources to manage their own health. For example, this can be seen in care given to overweight patients, where individuals can track their weight in correlation to a database containing their medical history and any predisposed illnesses. Certainly in the case of critical health problems, early detection can minimize the severity of the situation. With more information readily available, both the physician and the patient can more effectively plan for treatment.
Many healthcare facilities have adopted automated appointment setting and scheduling systems, which minimize the risks that patients will miss needed visits and also save valuable time for office administrators. Patients can complete registration forms in the convenience of their own homes, schedule visits when it fits their needs, and stay apprised of immunization timetables. The workload traditionally performed by a medical assistant can be transferred to a computer, saving time and money. While medical billing places enormous demands on healthcare providers working with various insurance companies, the industry still lags behind in IT to assist with billing. The goal of implementing information technologies is to reduce paperwork and bureaucracy for healthcare administrators. Of course, following government-imposed regulations can also add to the workload for medical offices. Although, in the long run, healthcare providers stand to benefit from using IT to assist with billing and insurance payments, many are dragging their feet because of the high cost of implementation. Congress has offered financial incentives, $36 billion in subsidies, to help finance the cost of upgrading medical billing systems.
Medication regulation is another important use of IT in healthcare administration. Doctors and patients alike can benefit from the convenience of electronic prescriptions, as well as warnings regarding drug contraindications. Additionally, the ability to access information in an EHR regarding a patient’s prescription history by other doctors may also contribute to more accurate treatment and reduce the risk of overdose or even drug abuse. With greater reliance on electronic information, human error can be taken out of the equation. Naturally, as in other areas of health IT, proper implementation of electronic tools involving medication will require cooperation from government agencies, pharmaceuticals, and the entire healthcare industry.