Monday, November 2, 2009

Health Informatics specialists are essential to reform and transform our health system

Much of the American health system is outdated, inefficient and excessively expensive. Many have written about what is wrong with our system, and how important is the process of health reform. But relatively little has been written about what is required to improve the care of all Americans, and how we are to arrive at comprehensive solutions that both disrupt our current system of care, and replace it with improved approaches. One thing we can be certain about is that any changes that we make will be dependent on our capacity to harness information technology, and to use computerized systems intelligently to reform and transform our patient care environments and processes.

Clayton Christensen, in a recent ground breaking book, has argued that disruptive innovation is now necessary in our health industry and that this consists of three elements. The first requirement is for sophisticated technologies to simplify healthcare processes, the second is for business models that deliver more affordable and patient focused solutions, and the third is a commercial and information infrastructure to act as a value-added network.

For this vision to be implemented at a practical level, his model requires strong leadership and the training of substantial numbers of health informatics and change implementation specialists to take up transformative roles within our healthcare system.

Let's look at how this model might work for the average American academic medical center currently trying to provide a full range of sophisticated medical services while using our antiquated and exponentially increasing fee-for-service cost model, and running a series of regional primary care clinics.

The first element is to implement sophisticated technologies to simplify healthcare processes. This includes a full electronic medical record, accessed by patients and clinical staff, available anytime anywhere, sharing data with competitors systems, fully available for research and clinical trials and including a sophisticated set of decision rules to assist all users. This academic center would have extensive telemedicine and internal and external communications systems, online platforms for all types of continuing education, and an active virtual community profile and social networking program. All of the technologies would be continuously improved and evaluated by a team of health informatics specialists, part of whose role is to train their colleagues and the next generation of change implementation specialists.

The second element is to transform the clinical and cost-approach taken by the medical center which will need to focus on specialized areas of internally acknowledged strength to become, as Christensen notes, a "solution shop" in its areas of strength, while no longer providing a full range of all types of medical and surgical services. This may mean dropping certain types of care completely, and negotiating for such specialist services to be delivered at another hospital instead. It may mean creating specialist community clinics with capitated payment models. It will certainly mean doing more of what it does well, and less of what it does not see as core clinical activities. It means taking on services that are already efficient and technologically supported, and adding value to these services through technological and clinical innovation. This second element requires both business and technological expertise.

The third element in the model is developing what Christensen calls "facilitated networks" which he defines as enterprises in which people exchange things with each other. This is where the academic center might decide to partner with previous competitors, promote pre-paid preventative health approaches, support health savings accounts linked to employer groups and encourage all patients to have personally controlled health records. All of these activities are underpinned by the need to have extensive expertise in health informatics - the discipline that is, above all others, required to transform American healthcare.

So the question is, can a modern academic medical center in the USA afford to be without a strong health informatics program as it moves forward in this era of health reform?

And the answer?

A resounding "No".

Peter Yellowlees MD has recently published "Your health in the Information Age - how you and your doctor can use the Internet to work together" - available at most online bookstores.