Benefits of Health IT

Dr. David Blumenthal | November 30, 2009

In February 2009, President Obama and the Congress launched a vast, ambitious program to improve the health of Americans, and the performance of their health system, by building a nationwide, interoperable, private and secure, electronic health information system.  This vision – of health care empowered by a modern information system, serving each and every American according to their needs and preferences – reflects decades of study and thinking by health care experts, health professionals, and average citizens.  Typical of the consensus underlying the nation’s new health information technology (HIT) program is this recommendation by the Institute of Medicine from its seminal 2001 report, Crossing the Quality Chasm:

“Congress, the executive branch, leaders of health care organizations, public and private purchasers…should make a renewed national commitment to building an information infrastructure to support health care delivery, consumer health, quality measurement and improvement, public accountability, clinical and health services research, and clinical education.  This commitment should lead to the elimination of most handwritten clinical data by the end of the decade.”

Similar recommendations have come from many other non-partisan, independent authoritative sources such as the Commonwealth Fund, the Markle Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  These recommendations reflect not only academic studies showing the benefits of HIT, but also experience and common sense.  We live in a digital age.  We have seen technology improve virtually every facet of our lives.  But medicine still relies on cumbersome paper charts.  We manage information the same way Hippocrates did 2400 years ago.  It’s time to move medicine into the 21st century.

Many health care organizations, big and small, public and private, have installed electronic health record systems and are reaping their benefits daily.  Examples include not only national systems like the Veterans Administration and Kaiser Permanente, but regional groups like Geisinger Health System, and individual hospitals like the Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston, and Lakeland Hospital, a 77-bed facility outside of Omaha Nebraska.  These organizations show that the vision is feasible – health care can be made higher in quality and lower in cost through the best existing HIT.

From a common sense perspective, it is impossible to imagine a 21st century American health system deprived of the electronic methods of collecting, managing, and moving data that have revolutionized virtually every other area of human endeavor.  Information is the lifeblood of medicine.  HIT is its circulatory system.  A health care system without an electronic health information system simply cannot achieve its potential, anymore than an Olympic athlete could compete with a failing heart.  This is the vision that President Obama and the Congress embraced in February 2009.

Nevertheless, any bold new goal has to be reduced to practice, and skeptics are now asking appropriately whether the HIT program can succeed.  A few recent studies have raised questions about whether health care organizations that have installed electronic health records are actually realizing the expected benefits.  Perhaps existing examples of success are atypical, and can’t be reproduced in the rest of our health system?  Perhaps we are moving too fast?  Perhaps the risks are too great?

As a scientist myself, I take the academic literature very seriously.  I believe that policy should be based on the best available information, carefully analyzed and considered. However, recent studies raising questions about the benefits of EHRs are informative, but limited in their applicability to our HIT program.  To the extent that they accurately capture past experience with EHRs, these studies illustrate something that the Congress and the President understand and have allowed for:  namely, that having an EHR alone is not sufficient.  Doctors and hospitals have to use this technology effectively, have to employ its extraordinary power to improve clinical decisions, in order to achieve its potential benefits.  The federal government’s new programs of incentives and penalties are totally focused on encouraging the meaningful use of EHRs.  The resources set aside by the Congress to encourage the adoption of EHRs will go only to physicians, hospitals, and other providers who meet carefully designed new requirements for the use of EHRs that will translate into health improvements and cost reductions for the American people.  And the plan passed by Congress includes new resources and support that will help make it possible for providers and hospitals to meet these requirements.  We have already announced the availability of grants that will help providers adopt and use EHRs, and we will be making additional announcements in the weeks and months ahead.

Sometimes bold steps are required to improve the human condition.  Among the most successful health and social programs in American history are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Community Health Center Program, and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.  It would have been a tragic mistake, costing untold thousands of lives and enormous suffering, if we had foregone or delayed these programs.  I believe the HIT initiative will rank with these huge successes in the value it will bring to the American people over the years to come.

David Blumenthal, M.D., M.P.P. – National Coordinator for Health Information Technology