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Healthcare IT Expands

Programs ramp up to offer education and training

BY PEGGY ALBRIGHT

Healthcare, one of the largest and most vital sectors of the US economy, dragged its feet when other industries embraced information technologies and still creates many of its records by hand. But that may be finally changing. Bolstered by funding from the economic stimulus package, the industry is gearing up to computerize patients’ medical records and create a nationwide infrastructure to facilitate the transmission and exchange of records among patients, doctors, hospitals, pharmacies, and others.

Plentiful opportunities

Bringing this paper-intensive industry into the digital age will create an immediate need for talented IT professionals. They will be needed to help vendors, professional services Hot Sectorsorganizations, and healthcare companies not only get these stimulus-funded systems off the ground, but manage and maintain the new services. New software applications are also expected to emerge as the industry adapts its processes to take advantage of the capabilities these new investments bring, representing additional career markets. For IT professionals seeking new challenges, the modernization of healthcare should create plentiful opportunities.

Scott Lundstrom, research vice president at Health Industry Insights, an IDC company, said it will require the same level of effort as electronic resource planning. “Think of it as ERP in the ’90s. It’s a similar market, though limited to healthcare,” Lundstrom said. “Every major organization in the industry will put in a major system in the next five years.”

Incremental advancements

Segments within the healthcare industry have attempted to modernize in recent years, but advancements have been incremental at best. Today, just 15 percent of doctors’ offices use electronic medical records (EMRs), the foundation of a health IT system. Yet IT is considered a fundamental tool in the country’s arsenal to help curtail spiraling healthcare costs: This year, the cost of delivering healthcare in the US will consume about 16.5 percent of the GDP, and if left unchecked that figure could exceed 20 percent within 10 years.

Greater efficiency

Health IT will also have a dramatic impact on the quality of care patients receive, reducing medication errors, for example. “We’re really at a juncture here,” said Richard Steen, associate partner and consulting executive in IBM’s healthcare practice. “We can no longer afford to conduct healthcare as in the past. It must be more efficient.”

The stimulus package aims to accelerate this transformation by investing about US $20 billion in the health IT market during the next five years. Most of that funding will be used as incentives to cover the costs doctors’ offices and hospitals need to deploy EMR systems. Businesses that fail to conform will be penalized.

To be eligible for funding, EMR systems must carry a certification guaranteeing their compatibility with the planned nationwide health information network, and the stimulus act creates a new federal agency to set up the server infrastructure, establish interoperability criteria and carry out the certification program. The agency will also have funding to help develop regional health information systems that will aggregate clinical or epidemiological data for use in analyzing the efficacy and cost of specific services or public health status.

One of the organizations that is paying particular attention to the implementation of the emerging health IT system is the American Medical Informatics Association, which has launched several educational programs to train individuals it says will be needed in large numbers to champion the design, development, implementation, use and maintenance of these systems.

Lack of trained professionals

Don Detmer, AMIA’s president and CEO, says his organization estimates that 70,000 healthcare professionals will be needed around the country to help healthcare providers adopt and deploy appropriate technologies, and it has created courses that it is offering at colleges and universities to train people for these roles.

“We need people who know how to help implement this,” he said. Yet, he noted, there are not a lot of these professionals trained for this particular field and the industry will need to really ramp up to meet the expected demand.

Security and privacy concerns

Mechanisms to guarantee privacy and security of patient data must still be developed before these services can be implemented. They remain a subject of intense debate among diverse stakeholders.

One expert from the private sector believes this challenge is manageable. “This is no different than the banking industry,” said Don Jones, vice president of business development for Qualcomm’s health and life sciences division, which is investing in and developing mobile healthcare applications. Jones noted that consumers and industry alike expect and receive high protection levels for their financial information and routinely engage in secure banking transactions.

Yet Gio Wiederhold, a professor emeritus of computer science, medicine, and electrical engineering at Stanford University, said healthcare practitioners, especially medical doctors, will require hard-to-achieve levels of privacy and security. To achieve them, a change in attitudes toward software development is necessary, said Wiederhold, who is also a physician specializing in health information privacy and security. An example he points to is a common failure to protect against buffer overflow, a leading vulnerability that he says won’t be tolerated in this field.

“There are opportunities,” Wiederhold said, “But they will be available for IT personnel willing to change old practices for ones appropriate to the risk-averse setting in healthcare practice.” CW (9 April, 2009)

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