In 2004, I was managing a hospital division at the University of Chicago and our clinic director walked into my office and asked whether I thought that all physicians should be issued with smartphones. My first internal thought was, “Hmm, what’s a smartphone?”
Today, we all know how dramatically different mobile phones are than they were a year or two ago, much less back in 2004. But as the power of mobile technology increases, tech entrepreneurs have taken a lead on challenging old rules that haven’t been discussed in decades. What if the development of the smartphone could give us some clues into the future of healthcare IT?
Recently, I was on a business trip to Boston and met a friend for dinner. As we discussed where to go, I wanted to go someplace close, thinking that getting a taxi would be a pain. My friend pulled out his smartphone and requested a car to pick us up through the car-sharing service Uber. If you haven’t heard of Uber, or Sidecar, or Lyft, the essence is that the headache, the wait, and sometimes the expense of getting a taxi are virtually eliminated.
In many American cities, there are not enough taxis to service the number of people who want a ride. Before Uber, it could take a long time to get a taxi, and people would wind up…stuck. Recently, ride-sharing companies have launched, using smartphones to connect aspiring passengers with would-be drivers. Result? More rides, better prices, improved availability. Conclusion: happy passengers.
What’s instructive about Uber is that while passengers love it, regulators and incumbent companies do not and, in fact, have worked to shut it down. Their belief is that without strict oversight, the quality of rides will diminish, and passengers will be worse off. Brian Chen, reporter for the New York Times, spoke over the issue with Professor Daniel Sperling, Director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at University of California, Davis. “Transportation has been one of the least innovative sectors in our society,” says Dr. Sperling. “When I look at these new mobility companies coming, where they’re using information and communication technology, at a very high level it’s long overdue and should be embraced with open arms.”
If healthcare took a page out of the Uber book, what could healthcare software enable over the next few years?
The parallels between healthcare facilities and taxis are strikingly similar. Regulators not only control the number of taxis, they also control the number of healthcare facilities allowed to open. While most Americans don’t realize it, there is a set of laws called “Certificate of Need” or “CON” laws. These laws lead to the same outcome as the scarcity of taxis. Joseph Miller, at the Antitrust Division of the United States Department of Justice, said CON laws “…undercut consumer choice, weaken markets’ ability to contain healthcare costs, and stifle innovation.”
Today, a new hospital or healthcare organization, in order to get permission to open up shop, needs to demonstrate that wait times are so long at current hospitals, that a new hospital could open up without harming the profit of a hospital already in operation. But, getting that type of data is nearly impossible, or has been, until now.
Imagine a scenario where patients could share the data on when they made an appointment, how long of a wait time they had for the appointment, and then how long they had to wait in an exam room. Patients have, by law, the right to their healthcare information, but in the past people have mostly been interested in clinical information, not in practice management data. However, what if we, the patients, could send our practice management data to a central database? New healthcare businesses could use that data to get permission to open up new clinics, new hospitals, and other services that could strengthen customer choice, increase the markets’ ability to contain healthcare costs, and make innovation explode.
Where could this matter the most? In Massachusetts, after healthcare reform, wait times more than tripled for primary care appointments.
The reason was straightforward. The number of patients dramatically increased but the number of doctors and the number of hospitals stayed the same. Scarcity was on the rise, just like taxis on New Years Eve. High in demand, but not a free one in sight. Healthcare reform has, of course, become a national phenomenon, which means that if data and technology can be used to increase access to healthcare facilities, such a development could dramatically improve patient satisfaction nation-wide.
Smartphones allowed us all to become better connected, but the real disruption came from breaking down barriers that previously nobody had the data or the coordination abilities to address. Is it really a stretch to think that healthcare IT doesn’t have the same future?
That would be really cool. Maybe even Uber-cool.