Technology occupies an unusual place in health care. Some people say that electronic health records are clumsy barriers between patients and their doctors. Others suggest that technology is a kind of secret sauce.
In many places physicians and other clinicians are stymied by awkward technology. In other organizations — Kaiser Permanente included — electronic health records enable some of the finest individual and population health care ever.
This humorous equation speaks volumes about technology and health care:
NT + OO = COO
New technology + old organization = Costly old organization. In other words, technology doesn’t change an organization. Change is about leadership and culture. It is about thinking in new ways and asking new questions.
For example, rather than ask how many patients can you see, let’s ask how many patients’ problems can you solve?
Instead of asking how can we convince patients to get required prevention, let’s ask how can we create systems that significantly increase the likelihood that patients get required prevention?
Instead of asking how often should a physician see a patient to optimally monitor a condition, let’s ask what is the best way to optimally monitor a condition?
When we begin asking these kinds of questions, we see technology as a tool — not a solution by itself, but as a powerful tool we can use to deliver better individual and population care. Technology, like data, is only useful when it enables clinicians and teams to work effectively to provide the highest quality care for patients.
Hospitals and physician groups throughout the country are installing and working with electronic health records at a rapid pace. Some organizations integrate the systems beautifully, others do not.
Bumpy Wired Road Ahead
Bob Wachter, MD, is a thoughtful voice on this topic and we look forward to the publication of his book, “The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age,” due out next spring.
Technology’s application in health care is central to efforts to improve access, quality, equity, and affordability, yet the road to a wired system is undeniably bumpy. For all the challenges, however, we believe we are headed in a positive direction.
Dr. Wachter is by no means a Luddite. Far from it. He recently noted that “Meaningful Use” — a phrase which makes some stakeholders uncomfortable — has done a great deal of good (increasing the percentage of wired hospitals and physician practices from 30 to 70).* The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) defines the meaningful use incentive programs as providing “financial incentives for the meaningful use of certified EHR technology to improve patient care.” Wachter predicts that in a couple of decades “computers will have transformed healthcare … leaving it better, safer, and maybe even cheaper. Most of the kinks … will have been ironed out.”
Let’s remind ourselves that registries and electronic health records have enabled the medical profession to care for patients in ways never before imagined — managing thousands of patients in a diabetes registry, for example. Without the power of technology, the kind of population management increasingly common for chronic conditions would be unthinkable.
Some doctors may be distracted or annoyed by electronic records. Sometimes they are slowed down. Today, our role as physicians is to stand up for our patients as healers, leaders, and partners in their journeys through the rutted landscape that is modern health care.
How Long the Wait?
The transition period in which we find ourselves is both frustrating and invigorating. How much longer before we get it right? We are drawn to some perspective from Vinod Khosla, whose technology credentials are as solid as they come: Khosla was a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, a general partner at the technology venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and now leads Khosla Ventures.
Khosla recently observed on techcrunch.com that new health care IT systems can be “underwhelming and clumsy. By comparison, my first cell phone was the size of a sewing machine and floor mounted to a car with a cumbersome handset cord but has since evolved into today’s iPhone. Similarly, in 15 or 20 years, changes to health care will seem obvious, inevitable and well beyond what we envision compared to the somewhat crude digital health technologies we see today.”
At Kaiser Permanente we are known for pushing the technology frontier and that impulse has yielded multiple benefits for our patients. Decision support pop-ups sometimes annoy physicians, but they also provide guidance toward quality and safety, reducing unwarranted variation. Our KP HealthConnect system has allowed us to translate medical terms into clear language our members readily grasp.
When our oncology physicians agreed on clear cancer protocols and guidelines, we were able to embed them into our electronic system. And wherever a Kaiser Permanente patient appears within our system, technology tells the team member — whether receptionist, physician, nurse, etc. — exactly the tests and screenings for which the patient is due thus reducing care gaps. Better health for our members? Absolutely.
Jack Cochran, MD, FACS, (@JackHCochran) is executive director of The Permanente Federation, headquartered in Oakland, California.