Creating a new IT culture in health care

NationalPost.com – Financial Post/FPComment/Counterpoint: Budgets and patient health both will benefit
Oct 3, 2011.    By Graham W.S. Scott, Special to Financial Post

The pressures on our health system are real and continue to build, threatening the sustainability of our health-care system. For example, rates of chronic disease continue to increase, and access and quality challenges continue to be a reality in many parts of the country.

The people who work in our health system continue to pursue a number of major thrusts designed to improve health-care delivery — focusing on areas such as patient-centred care, strengthening access to quality care, encouraging collaborative teams, and improving productivity. The common thread among all of these initiatives is that they require information technology to reach their full potential.

Governments around the world have recognized this and are well down the path toward implementing e-health systems to improve the delivery of patient care and make their health systems more sustainable. The same can be said of large health-delivery organizations such as Kaiser Permanente (providing care services to 8.8 million people) or the Department of Veterans Affairs in the United States (providing care services to more than 5.5 million patients annually), both of which have made health-information technologies a foundation of their efforts to improve health care.

That’s not to say that it’s easy. As Don Berwick, head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in the United States, said last year, “It’s better for everyone when health care IT is used meaningfully.… The question is, if it’s so good, why aren’t we there yet? For everybody? For all the patients, not just the lucky ones in modernized systems? The reason is because it’s hard. Moving from paper legacy systems to modern IT is a big change. New hardware, new skills, new attitudes, new assumptions. It’s really a new culture and you don’t get there in one step.”

While much remains to be done in Canada and in other countries, we are well on our way and are starting to reap the benefits of health IT systems throughout the country. For example, almost 90% of X-ray, CT, MRI and similar examinations and reports in Canada’s acute-care hospitals are now digitized and sharable, up from approximately 38% six years ago. As a result, radiologists and technologists reporting is much more productive. This means faster test results for patients who need them.

Services to remote communities are being enhanced as well. More than 400 northern, remote, First Nations, and Inuit communities now have access to tele-health services to provide residents with remote access to specialized clinical services, to support education of local clinicians, and to enable relatives to connect with patients who are receiving care elsewhere. A recent study indicates that almost 260,000 tele-health sessions were held in 2010, supporting services such as remote care, education for health providers and administrative meetings. The report estimates that Canadians who received care via telehealth rather than travelling to other communities for care saved about $70-million in personal travel costs in 2010.

These are just two of many examples where patients and clinicians are benefiting today.

Canada Health Infoway invests federal funds in the national effort to make electronic health record systems a reality for all Canadians. Every province and territory is participating: a true pan-Canadian effort. And Canadians can rest assured the initiative is well managed. In fact, when the Office of the Auditor-General of Canada issued its fall 2009 report on electronic health records, Infoway was recognized for accomplishing much since its creation and was found to be working with “due regard” for taxpayer’s money and managing projects efficiently.

The future of health care depends on smart progress in improving health, enhancing the patient experience and managing costs. Effective use of information technology is key to achieving this “triple aim” for health-care improvement, just as it has been to progress in so many other aspects of our lives. Let’s get on with the job.

Financial Post
Graham W.S. Scott, CM, QC, is ­chairman of Canada Health Infoway

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