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Marchibroda: Better Health Info Means Better Care and Lower Costs

Janet Marchibroda, Chief Healthcare Officer, IBM
Wednesday, 5 Aug 2009 | 11:00 AM ET

As Congress works to craft health care legislation, it needs to ensure that any structural reform it enacts helps put the best medical knowledge to work for every patient. Effectively managing the massive amounts of medical data generated within our health care system can literally mean the difference between life and death. It can also mean the difference between success and failure in stemming the rising costs of health care.

Health Care Reform
Health Care Reform

Too often patients and doctors have to make crucial decisions without access to up-to-date information, or to medical guidelines that lead to the best outcomes.

Today more than 20 percent of medical tests, such as laboratory tests, X-rays, CAT scans and MRIs are repeated, because patient records are not available for evaluation, which means higher, unnecessary costs.

According to the Institute of Medicine, 7,000 people die each year in the U.S. as the result of preventable prescription errors.

Reforming U.S. health care requires improving care and taming costs, which have reached $2.4 trillion in 2008 and are expected to climb 6.2 percent a year through 2018.

By taking advantage of 21st century technology, which has helped modernize almost every other U.S. industry, our health care system can ensure that doctors, patients and practitioners are able to access complete, accurate medical information when and where it is needed most—at the point of care.

A number of leading hospitals and health care systems already use information technology to create an integrated and informed approach to medicine, which results in better care and lower costs. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, one of the leading nonprofit health systems in the U.S., has improved care and saved $30 million in capital and operating costs by bringing advanced IT into patient care, research and management.

The North Carolina Healthcare Information and Communications Alliance is at work facilitating health information exchange within the state, so that records can be sent electronically to emergency rooms to support urgent care and pharmacies to provide much-needed information about prescriptions. A recent survey by eHealth Initiative, an independent nonprofit organization, found that nearly half of the health information exchange networks around the country report cost savings and health care improvements, including fewer redundant tests, improved access to test results, reduced staff time, and fewer medication errors.

By itself, technology can not reform health care, but it can be a tool for gathering medical intelligence quickly and getting into the hands of practitioners when it counts. IT can help practitioners share information and work in collaborative teams, which is a proven technique for achieving clinical excellence. Smarter, more connected systems also empower patients to make the treatment choices that are best for them.

We use sophisticated technology to book an airline seat, withdraw cash from an ATM and track a package. It’s time we took advantage of IT to help us manage our health care. Today standards-based systems can and do protect patient privacy. With clear national standards and the right incentives, U.S. health care can have the electronic foundation it needs to support higher quality, more efficient care. Health IT will not only lead to better forms of care delivery but it will also help us improve the health of Americans, by supporting better management of chronic disease, performance measurement and improvement, the detection and response to medical product safety issues and public health threats, and understanding what constitutes effective health care.

We need systemic reforms that can improve care and reduce spiraling costs. If we fail here, the goal of affordable, accessible, and effective health care for all Americans will continue to elude us. That’s too high a price to pay.

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Janet Marchibroda is chief health care officer at IBM.

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