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Healthcare industry needs IT jab
Friday, 06 November 2009 00:00

This industry lags in IT adoption but a healthy dose of change is being administered.

NOWADAYS, healthcare issues seem to be dominating the news. You read about the United States declaring a state of emergency due to the increasing number of Americans dying from H1N1 while there are reports of Malaysia and other countries also struggling to contain the pandemic.

Elsewhere and at other times, there are all sorts of other maladies cropping up — everything from AIDS to super throat infections to dengue fever to an old enemy even, tuberculosis.

The question of information technology in healthcare seems rather trivial to consider at this point. After all, hundreds of new diagnostic and testing machines have been developed in the last 20 years. It would seem that contemporary hospitals and clinics are as good as they can be.

Their medical facilities may be top notch, but hospitals and clinics may not be as efficient as they should be, according to some healthcare experts.

When it comes to medical record management, many hospitals are severely lacking a cohesive IT strategy, said Dr Mark Parrish, director of Microsoft’s health solutions group for Asia Pacific.

“These supposedly high-tech facilities are still using paper files and ink to manage their patients, and their business in general,” he said. “This results in frequent errors, higher costs, longer lines and shorter lives.”

Dr Parrish believes the solution is not merely to use computers in hospitals and clinics, but to also link the systems to those of specialist doctors, laboratories, pharmacies and other medical arms.

He believes that only this way can doctors have access to all the information they need to treat their patients. “As a doctor I can tell you that having all the information readily available leads to better treatment and undoubtedly saves lives,” he said.

According to Parrish, the healthcare industry has not embraced IT like most other industries have.

Sure, he said, a fancy new medical scanner is invented every other month. Meanwhile a nurse drops a file, loses a sheet with critical patient information, and the patient dies because of that.

“Even if hospitals do use a software system, too often they use several systems loosely patched together,” he said. “This means that the testing laboratory system may not properly communicate with the system used in the doctor’s office. This too can create problems.”

Burning money

Healthcare is one of the biggest industries in the world. The United States alone spends 16% of its GDP (gross domestic product) on healthcare and the issue of the industry’s future is now at the forefront in the US Congress.

In comparison, the Malaysian Government’s healthcare spending is about 4.7% of its GDP. This is according to the website of the Chief Secretary to the Government of Malaysia.

So, the worldwide market for healthcare IT software, specifically in relation to patient information and financial management, seems shockingly small in relation to expenditure.

The Economist magazine confirmed earlier this year that despite its history of innovation, the healthcare industry has been surprisingly reluctant to embrace IT.

The Rand Corporation, a US think tank, estimated that if 90% of hospitals and doctors in that country were to adopt healthcare IT over 15 years, the industry could save US$77bil (RM262bil) a year.

Many doctors, however, are sceptical of such a possibility.

Due to ever-tightening budgets in the healthcare industry and skyrocketing costs for both patients and hospitals, many are forced into “medical tourism.” This is when those who are uninsured or underinsured seek treatment in another country where hospital fees are lower.

Healthcare IT providers agree that the right software, implemented properly, will lead to significant cost savings for hospitals and other medical institutions.

“But now, in fits and starts, medicine is at long last catching up (with other industries that have embraced IT),” it was written in a special report by The Economist recently, titled “Medicine goes digital.”

The local scene

The Malaysian Government’s Telehealth initiative has been designed to transform our healthcare system to be “more integrated, distributed and virtual.”

According to the director of the MSC Malaysia Telehealth initiative Dr Amiruddin Hisan, his department is working on creating Malaysian health industry standards in various areas, including lifetime health records and lifetime health plans.

“The Health Ministry is responsible for the main IT implementation,” he said. “We work closely with them to achieve a more efficient national healthcare system.”

There are a few major healthcare-IT providers currently operating in Malaysia, most recognisably Microsoft Corp which acquired health care solutions provider Amalga in 2007. Others, such as Siemens, Cerner and iSoft, have also implemented their systems in various hospitals across the country.

“It used to be that hospital administrators did not see the value of spending on IT,” said senior product marketing manager for Microsoft’s health solutions group Monica Mak.

“Now it is starting to capture people’s attention. It is an exciting time for healthcare all around.”

Microsoft’s Amalga Unified Intelligence System helps doctors store electronic patient records and allows them to access that information remotely throughout the hospital.

It is designed to record patient data properly and extensively to help doctors ascertain the right treatment more effectively. This system is being used at the Assunta Hospital in Petaling Jaya.

The Selayang Hospital has implemented Siemens’ Total Hospital Information System and is running completely paperless. The system is designed to record and make available electronic medical records, as well as provide other document management capabilities.

In 2006, the Malaysian Government awarded a contract to Australia’s largest e-health provider, IBA Health Group Ltd (now known as the iSoft Group), to make 13 government hospitals paperless and unify their healthcare facilities.

Last June, three of those hospitals received upgrades to their systems and six more upgrades are scheduled to take effect by next year.

On the outside

iSoft patient and financial management software is also in the final stages of implementation at the Siriraj Bangkok — Thailand’s largest hospital which employs more than 1,200 physicians and nearly 8,000 nurses.

“Accurate information will help our doctors make speedier diagnoses to improve treatment,” said Siriraj’s deputy dean of information technology, Dr Viroje Chongkolwatana.

“It also reduces waiting time for patients and this is important in a hospital with almost 3,000 beds.”

The software vendors claim that installing an easily accessible electronic health records system will save an organisation money, but there are more benefits than that.

“This is not just about making hospitals paperless. Healthcare IT solutions make organisations more efficient medically and procedurally,” said Mak at Microsoft.

“You will have less repeated exams and less nurses moving files from one room to another. Doctors and nurses will be able to focus more on the patient and less on making sure the hospital stays afloat financially.”

What about us?

Dr Parrish believes that eventually the healthcare industry must put the power of IT into the hands of its patients as well.

“It is actually amazing that so many people accept mediocrity in this industry,” he said. “We can buy goods and services of all kinds via the Internet yet you still have to call up a doctor, get an appointment penned down on paper and explain your medical history from scratch.

“With just the time saved on having to go through this process manually, lives will be saved for sure.”

Personal electronic medical record keeping is now being offered by Microsoft, Google and personal health record company Dossia but is not available in every country yet.

Microsoft HealthVault and Google Health are both still in the beta testing stage. There have also been objections to this type of service based on medical privacy, especially in relation to Google Health which is not covered by US confidentiality legislation.

Nevertheless, such a service would allow people to store their medical story online (including their children’s medical history) and share it with their doctor or any other physician.

“By right, we should be able to book our doctor appointments online, as well as send and receive our medical scans and test results,” said Parrish.

“This technology is still some years away but I am optimistic that we will get there eventually.”

 

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