Healthcare Information Technology and The Future of Medicine

Medicine & Healthcare Information Technology In the Future

When it comes to medicine, healthcare information technology has become an integral part of care. Estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau expect the population of Americans aged 65 and older to increase by more than a factor of two between 2010 and 2050 [1]. This is not good news for the state of medicine in the U.S., particularly when it comes to providing quality care for these patients.

Estimates of healthcare expenditure increases between 2007 and 2017 show an increase to nearly 20% of GDP in this period [2]. These estimates were made prior to the recent financial crisis that began during the Fall of 2008. Further compounding this increasing demand and the concomitant increase in costs is the availability of allied healthcare professionals. Some studies [3] identify the likely decrease in the number of physicians entering any number of key specialty areas, including cardiology (20% decrease by 2020), geriatrics (35% of current demand met today), rheumatology (38 day average wait for a new appointment), and primary care (on the verge of collapse). Those of us who are baby boomers are on the leading edge of this demand and, in order to mitigate and minimize the cost impacts on our children, it is our challenge and responsibility to innovate and meet these challenges without passing along unnecessary burdens to our children and grandchildren.

Aging & Future Medicine

For most of us, aging means more frequent and severe afflictions, from chronic ailments to more acute care needs and longer hospital stays. Medicine and medical care becomes an extremely important part of life as we age. Taking care of our health by improving diet, exercising, and maintaining an otherwise active lifestyle is essential to ensure a high quality life. Even with increased vigilance chronic ailments can affect us later in life, brought on both by our genetics and consequentially due to the lifestyles we’ve led in our youths. Ailments such as dementia, coronary artery disease, Alzheimer’s, myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure, macular degeneration, osteoporosis, hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, diabetes, and others take their toll. Managing chronic diseases is costly from a logistical perspective in terms of time and money. However, even more to the point, effective and quality oversight of patients with chronic ailments requires regular review, screening, and monitoring of patients. This is further complicated by the need to serve patients who lack the means or are physically incapable of leaving their homes for extended periods. Telehealth and remote monitoring are a means by which a case manager—an individual assigned to oversee the care of chronically ill patients within a home-health setting—can review patient information on a regular basis (for example, daily) and support both the patient and the primary care provider. Furthermore, Intensive care units and emergency departments are becoming more crowded. Healthcare information technology is helping to ameliorate the challenges through improved workflow and more reliable & dense information. Individuals with insurance are going to EDs because they cannot find satisfaction in terms of prompt scheduling with their gatekeepers (family practitioners). The quantity of individuals with chronic ailments is on the rise (stroke, CHF, diabetes, COPD, etc.) This is in part due to the fact that people are living longer. At the same time the Medicare and SS systems will not be able to sustain the growth in population over age 65. This means that working individuals will increasingly bear the financial burden for us “boomers.” As a result of increased longevity and the fiscal challenges, the retirement age will increase.

Where does healthcare & medicine go? To the home!

So, what do we do? Well, several things: first, technology in the form of remote data collection, reporting devices and software will become more prevalent: glucometers, BP cuffs, spirometers and associated software will be more readily available for direct communication with personalized electronic health records. If the purpose of a typical visit is to take BP and diabetic assessments, this can be handled most by collecting data at the point of care (home) and transmitting to the physician’s office for assessment. Such also applies to nursing and assisted living facilities. Next, the technical infrastructure required to transmit and store these data will be required. Paying for this infrastructure could come from a number of sources. One possibility: most everyone nowadays has access to cable television. Cable companies could offer devices that integrate with existing modems to collect and transmit data to the FP, together with complementary emails to next of kin (e.g. “Your mother’s BP as of 8:10 this morning was 145/89”). Other technologies that can be used to evaluate and monitor chronic ailments such as macular degeneration can further reduce costs by providing video cameras at point of care whereby opthalmologists can review retinal changes without requiring an elderly individual to be transported at expense and time to a hospital or office. In addition, support for remote consults via VoIP and video can be supported over the same network. This empowers the remote provider with the ability to interact with the patient All of these technologies are in use in remote pockets around the world today. But, they will become more prevalent. These technology implementations will reduce costs and provide for more personalized care in comfortable settings (homes). Of course, nothing takes the place of the tactile hands-on. But, for routine visits the above will be invaluable. In terms of the software technologies, personalized medicine will become the norm (eventually). Telehealth will be key. But, also, support for automated workflow in the acute care environment will need to be augmented. This means fully integrating all data into the enterprise HIS.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through its Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, published operational scenarios focused on providing key information to assist in harmonizing standards on the implementation, certification, and policy implications for robust remote patient monitoring [4]. Included in this assessment are requirements on interacting with personalized health records and enterprise health information systems. The approaches to advancing remote monitoring include both seamless communication from medical devices at the point of care (i.e., in a patient’s home setting) and with a case manager and primary care provider both through electronic transfer, storage, and display of health information and remote video and audio interaction with patients in the same home health setting.

Healthcare Information Technology is not the silver bullet, but those described above are key enablers for remote health monitoring. Of course, the use of technology carries with it the implication that sufficient underlying infrastructure exists. This is not always the case in remote areas of the country. Satellite, cable, and fiber optic technologies are fairly extensive within the continental United States, but pockets and regions exist in which this is not the case. Therefore, a combined effort to extend the communications infrastructure must continue together with a unified effort to standardize and train and “in-service” individual care providers on these technologies must occur. One of the best mechanisms for enabling this is through the local hospitals and their satellite clinics.

So, how long do we have? Well, the sooner the better. Successful telehealth and remote monitoring programs exist throughout the United States and worldwide today. We should ensure that our elected representatives direct healthcare expenditures towards several specific areas to promote growth and alignment to meet the objectives of remote monitoring. These include continuing alignment on electronic personalized health records, expansion of our underlying communications infrastructure, and promoting common standards of communication among these records so that, regardless of location, a patient can communicate his or her information to any physician and allied health professional within the country. In summary: healthcare information technology employing common storage, homogeneous communication, standardized formats is necessary to provide the type of support necessary for the future of medicine.

References
[1] Source: Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau, August 14th, 2008; Table 12: “Projections of the population by Age and Sex for the United States: 2010 to 2050 (NP2008-T12)”

[2] Cinda Becker, “Slow: Budget Danger Ahead,” Modern Healthcare, March 3rd 2008.

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