Fasten your seatbelts for healthcare, the next generation

June 10, 2010

After I returned from the HIMSS conference in March, a few colleagues asked what stood out most for me at the event. Without hesitation I said it was the speed at which the mobility and portability of healthcare is developing. Walking through the HIMSS exhibit hall it became readily apparent that the technologies, devices and other innovations that we always knew would transform the delivery, consumption and administration of healthcare — but that always seemed years away — are in fact now here. 

It’s kind of like that car commercial from a few years ago that asked why we’ve never actually seen the cool and futuristic concept cars that auto manufacturers have teased us with over the years, except in this case all of the neat and futuristic stuff is right there just waiting for us to put it to good use. It’s called telemedicine, at the risk of oversimplifying, and combined with the change that has actually been legislated for healthcare over the past year, it’s putting the system on the threshold of an entirely new era.

For example: remember the dark ages of, say, 1998 or 2000 when patients were given heart monitors to wear and then had to phone their doctor to report the various data? Well, it’s pretty safe to say that we can relegate those to the same time capsule as the VCR and the rotary telephone. Fast forward to today and you’ll find wireless, Blue Tooth-enabled devices that can deliver the same information — and a lot more, in fact — in real time, 24/7. How about unlimited geographic boundaries for the delivery of medicine? Think of a lung specialist in Philadelphia rendering his expertise to a patient in rural Australia without leaving the comfort of his desk chair. Tired of being handed a clipboard and then interrogated about your medical history every time you see a new doctor? What if that information — in more breadth and detail than you can remember or are probably even aware of — was delivered to your doctor long before you even showed up for your appointment? And how about if, afterward, it was updated automatically and then followed you to your next specialist appointment?

These are just a few very small, very simple examples of the transformative powers of telemedicine and how it will (or, more accurately, has already begun to) change virtually everything about healthcare by putting information wherever we need it, whenever we need it and however we want it. This seemingly boundless availability of data isn’t simply a phenomenon unto itself, either. It’s going to impact all stakeholders in some way, which is precisely what we’ll need it to do if we’re to meet the mandates of reform.

Effecting large scale change of any sort in a system as massive and complex as healthcare seldom comes without a certain degree of trial and tribulation. It also often results in tremendous opportunity. In this respect all of the constituents in our industry stand to benefit greatly from the proliferation of telemedicine, and healthcare IT in general. Consider the previous examples and how having immediate, real-time access to more thorough data from a variety of sources can impact brand scalability and growth, market reach, operational efficiencies, cost controls and myriad other business-related factors. More importantly, imagine how the ubiquity of digital information will impact patients and their care — faster and more accurate diagnoses, better treatment plans, a generally more navigable system and, ultimately, healthier lives.

My previous two blogs were about being prepared from a technology standpoint to accommodate the forthcoming conversion to ICD-10 standards and the eventual adoption of personal health records. I’m going to continue that theme here too.

The sooner- and faster-than-expected telemedicine boom and the many opportunities associated with it mean IT professionals in all sectors of healthcare don’t have much time to react. It is important to begin assessing your organization’s existing capabilities and eventual needs now in order to be able to accommodate new and changing requirements as they arise.

As it has in virtually every other aspect of business and life in the 21st century, technology isn’t likely to slow itself down so we can get on board — we’re going to need to be ready to jump on when the opportunity presents itself. It’ll be important to have a running start. Consider how your organization will need to handle input from additional data sources, and what it can do with all of that information once it arrives. How will it impact programs and procedures? How will its real-time immediacy change your approach? What exactly can you do with it to get the most out of it?

The proliferation of telemedicine is also increasing the need for health information exchange. As all of these cutting edge gadgets and gizmos work their way into the medical mainstream, it is crucial that they be able to receive and transmit data from throughout the healthcare ecosystem. It’s important to investigate the best means for your company to share information with multiple entities in order to stay in sync with these real-time exchanges. It’s no longer a one-way, or even two-way, transaction. Will your organization be able to deliver data to multiple users in different formats for different devices?

If this all seems like a lot to consider, well, it is. Making the digital conversion in healthcare is likely to be cumbersome at first. The good news is that, based on what I saw, heard and experienced at HiMSS, there are a lot of options out there for not only managing but capitalizing on the trend. It’s best for us all to start kicking the tires on them now, because just as we’ve gotten to this point seemingly overnight, the next step is likely to happen even faster. Technology waits for no one.

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