vicki powers
freelance writer

Networking Delivers Healthy Connections

Technology links healthcare providers for community success and patient safety

iQ magazine, Second Quarter 2005

by Vicki Powers

Perhaps more than any other industry or sector, the healthcare community relies on the communication of information—data on everything from patients' medical histories to possible drug interactions and lab results to the most accurate and recent medical research.

Of the more than 30 billion individual healthcare communications in the United States each year, approximately 90% are still sent via fax, surface mail, or phone, according to recent research conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers and HIMSS Analytics. Information technology provides an opportunity to improve the quality, efficiency, and cost of healthcare by improving the accuracy, reliability, and speed of health—related communications between healthcare providers and their patients—and communication among healthcare practitioners.

To a greater extent than ever, networking technology plays a critical role in enabling healthcare providers to access and transmit information securely. Information technology allows healthcare practitioners to collaborate more effectively, since they are better equipped to access information at the right time and in the right place, improve the healthcare workflow, and ultimately provide patients with the safest, most efficient clinical environment and care. In particular, networking technology enables access to new applications such as electronic health records (EHRs) and online prescriptions at the point of care, further improving communications and enhancing patient care.

"Mobility and information at the point of care is becoming increasingly important for the delivery of care," says John Nebergall, vice president of e-prescriptions at Allscripts, a provider of clinical software solutions. "While only 15% to 20% of [practicing physicians in the United States] have access to electronic health records today, that number is expected to reach 50% in the next 18 to 24 months."

New Needs, New Tools
Using Networks to Connect Caregivers

Several forces contribute to the dynamic growth of information technology in today's healthcare environment—in particular, payers' increased demand for quality reporting, heightened focus on cost containment and efficiency, a greater level of government interest in healthcare issues, and the Bush administration's appointment of Dr. David Brailer as National Coordinator for Health IT Technology. Brailer's ultimate goal is to create "community health networks" that use networking technology to link physicians, nurses, radiologists, and other caregivers in hospitals, clinics, and elsewhere.

"We know that information technology supports treatment choices for consumers and enables better and more cost-effective care," Brailer said in a recent speech. "It does this by supporting and helping the caregivers and professionals who make a real difference in the lives of Americans. Health IT not only adds value to the way people lead their lives, but it gets more out of our investment in healthcare overall. Health IT can help the U.S. become more globally competitive—that is, it can increase our productivity and our standard of living at the same time."

Efforts to support these dual objectives are under way, but much work remains to be done. "Clinicians are indeed using EHRs today, but some clinicians are adopting EHRs more readily than others, creating an adoption gap based on the size of practice," Brailer said. "Larger practices-by their very largeness-have more resources, are better positioned to acquire information technology, and have greater capacity to mitigate risks.... However, if we believe that EHRs improve health status—as evidence says they do-then we have an obligation to level the playing field so that all practices and hospitals can adopt these life-saving tools."

Despite the challenges that many smaller healthcare providers face, many are making significant progress toward the goal of integrating information and communications by adopting innovative technology approaches through specific applications, including EHR systems, wireless connectivity, videoconferencing, and electronic prescriptions.

Greater Efficiencies
Suncoast Medical Clinic Transitions to Online Processes

Costly inefficiencies in the healthcare system represent one of the biggest areas of concern for today's provider organizations, according to Josh Adler, CEO of Suncoast Medical Clinic. Suncoast—a Floridabased system with 53 physicians in 21 specialties at its main campus and five satellite locations—is in the process of adopting electronic processes for the completion of clinical and administrative tasks, which will make manual record keeping obsolete and-hopefully-improve the overall quality of patient care. Threadfin Business Solutions, a Cisco registered partner, worked with Suncoast as an independent analyst to recommend an appropriate network infrastructure to support the clinic's present and long-term technology needs.

Adler believes it is imperative that physicians take a serious look at healthcare technology. Industry experts, including Adler, are looking for ways to overcome immediate challenges, including:

  • The increased focus on quality indicators
  • Changes in the use of hospital services
  • The need to monitor compliance with relevant policies
  • The importance of pay-for-performance compensation
  • The availability of secure networks for caregiver mobility

"I believe [today's] technology is consistent with what the physicians feel comfortable working with," Adler says. "Technology is a huge force in efficiencies, but it's also a huge force in better patient care. It enables physicians to provide better-quality outcomes for their patients because they have access to real-time data, which is critical in treating patients."

For complete article, contact Vicki Powers.

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