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Baird: Health Care Innovation Means Better Care and More Jobs

Two economic crises faced by the United States—unemployment over 9 percent and staggering health care costs—are deeply related.

Cost of healthcare
Lilli Day | Photodisc | Getty Images
Cost of healthcare

Health sector spending in this country was $2.4 trillion this last year, yet our health outcomes are below those of many other countries. It’s estimated that one-third of the money spent on health care does not improve health.

The cost burdens for health care carried by businesses and individuals represent one of the biggest threats to the long-term competitiveness of our economy, and in turn slows job growth in other sectors.

There’s another, more positive, way in which they intersect—the health sector is one of the largest job creators in the country. Between 2001 and 2006, while many other sectors were cutting jobs, the health industry generated 1.7 million new positions. And while other sectors have lost jobs the past 12 months, health care has gained 217,000 new jobs.

Clearly, health care spending both contributes to our current economic difficulties and provides us with a potential opportunity to help solve them.

The question is: what can we do to ensure that America’s health care sector contributes to, rather than detracts from, our long-term economic health?

That is one of the key topics that will be explored this week in our "Health not Healthcare: Bureaucracy vs Survival" discussion at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe, Calif.

There are no easy answers, of course, but more efficient, higher-quality health care is central to taking the country in the right direction. The health care sector has lagged nearly all others in productivity improvements using information technology (IT). Better and greater use of information technology can give us tools to achieve better health outcomes. We need to direct job growth in this sector toward truly value-added work.

We are at a critical moment. The federal government, which touches over half of health spending, is investing billions of dollars in health information technology. This will open the traditional health care sector to investment in these tools.

Doctor talking to female patient in office
Jamie Grill | Iconica | Getty Images
Doctor talking to female patient in office

We have a great opportunity to have IT transform productivity and quality, as it has in so many other sectors. Using health information technology to improve health care doesn’t simply mean converting paper records to electronic ones (although it means that, too).

The use of information and the technology that enables its use must be deployed specifically to achieve health-improvement and cost-efficiency goals, and to make sure that privacy is protected so that patients and health professionals alike trust these new networks and tools.

Innovators have begun to use iPhone apps, sophisticated home monitoring technologies, and social networking to transform the delivery of health care, leading to better outcomes and potentially lower costs. For these innovations to be sustainable in the health sector, they not only must create value for consumers and businesses, they must maintain trust through sound privacy and security policies.

The challenge we face in coming years is to convert job growth and technology innovation in the health sector to wider, systematic, and results-oriented change.

Look for extensive coverage from Techonomy online and on-air throughout the week on CNBC.

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Zoë Baird is president of the Markle Foundation, a private philanthropy that focuses on using information and communications technologies to address critical public needs, particularly in the areas of health care and national security.