Opinion: Information is the lifeblood of healthcare

By Dr Andrew Litt
09 May 2012 View Comments
andrew-litt-md

It’s rare that a day goes by with­out a story about healthcare problems somewhere in the world. UK and Canadian citizens face longer waiting times for specialised services. Many Chinese families struggle financially because of high medical costs. Fifty million uninsured Americans have little access to care. The challenges differ from nation to nation, but in most cases these problems could be solved by tackling the healthcare information deficit.

Technology can “connect the dots” of data that have the power to reduce costs and enhance care. It’s true that projects like the NHS’s National Programme for IT fell short of expectations, but the truth remains that systems that don’t talk to each other to share patient information create costly silos.

Further reading

Information access is imperative and must start with the clinical outcomes desired and not the technology. The tech­nology is the “easy part” and trying to force interoperability will lead to problems.

By starting at a local user level, we begin to understand where the silos exist and how to connect them for coordinated care. From there we can share and build further coordination among providers with the end goal of optimising how care is delivered and improving outcomes.

Let us look at each step.

First, unlock information where most of the care is provided – at GP surgeries and hospitals. In the UK, where there is increasing pressure for care to be provided outside of the hospital, this is becoming an urgent requirement. It is vital to invest in systems whose technology is standard and open so that doctors, hospitals and specialists can share patient information to coordinate their care.

Second, empower carers with technology that is secure, easy to use and gives medical professionals access to patient information where and when they need it. Using the cloud, for example, can expand capabilities without adding IT infrastructure and the associated costs. At the same time, the cloud can also ease access for authorised users while maintaining the high-level security that a healthcare environment requires. Care providers in hospitals that have taken this step are reclaiming thousands of hours a year for patient care that they previously spent searching for records and test results. More importantly, doctors are making better care decisions guided by evidence-based medicine and best practices. 

Third, strengthen the business and technology infrastructure that supports healthcare. We must connect disparate healthcare data sources to simplify information exchange and enable the kind of analytics that helps hospitals identify and replicate best care practices, manage patients more effectively and recognise and respond to emerging public health trends. All this can happen while technology-supported business processes save billions. 

Ultimately, the patient should also be included in this agenda by taking a full part in understanding their care and the associated records. David Cameron’s commitment that by 2015 patients should be able to access their records should be applauded and replicated.

Fourth, tap the digital data generated by electronic medical records, imaging and genomic research for intelligence that will lead to major innovations in healthcare and advances in public health.
High-performance computing is making genomic information more accessible to physicians and medical researchers by collapsing the cost of gene sequencing — from millions of dollars per genome a decade ago to a few thousand dollars today.

Once armed with integrated electronic medical record systems that include genomic information, physicians can develop more-targeted therapies and lifetime wellness plans for patients with genetic predispositions to specific diseases.

Now is the time to embrace the strategies and computing models that will help us turn an information deficit into an information dividend in healthcare and create a system that is more efficient for taxpayers and effective for patients. Once individual countries have closed the gap, we can band together to bring every society to the health standard of the highest.

Dr Andrew Litt is Dell’s Chief Medical Officer

• Do you agree? Or has the attempt to link data sources cost the NHS billions? Let us know by leaving a comment or emailing feedback@computing.co.uk

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