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Health Information Technology is the Future of Medicine

By Carol Duh-Leong

When I was a legislative intern at the American Academy of Pediatrics my junior year of college in 2006, I attended a legislative hearing debating the value of electronic medical records. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the only medical records that had survived the disaster were the electronic ones. Still, lawmakers worried that our privacy could not be secured and more worrisome, that doctors would refuse to adopt technology as part of their practice. As the debate raged, one future medical student, myself, was standing on the toes of her kitten heels in a crowd of interns scrambling to hear, texting on her mobile phone and trying to pull up the transcript of the hearing so she wouldn’t have to take notes.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act invests nearly $20 billion over five years for health information technology. Since the burden of the cost of implementing health information technology is on health care providers, this proposed policy stimulates purchase and meaningful use of health information technology with financial incentives. Analysts worry that doctors are defiant to tools that require behavioral change because doctors who have been working for years have developed their own system that works for them.

Health information technology advocates need not worry, though. In the end, health information technology will not be known as the silver bullet that solved the medical financial crisis, as an example of sound policy enforcement, or even just a good idea – it will be seen as an inevitability. If laws fail to demand health information technology, this generation of health care providers will. Medical students have traded in their laminated cardboard anatomy flashcards for point and zoom electronic programs on their iPods and we expect to be able to Google patient information that we need. Change is coming because the agents of that change are entering the health provider workforce.

The true beauty and promise of health IT, stripped down to its elements is that medical professionals will have access to a system that will allow them to follow patients no matter where they go and also to manage this information. In medicine, organized information is key to a good diagnosis. After all, eighty-nine percent of diagnoses can be made from a patient history-gathering interview alone, demonstrating that timely and accurate information saves lives. In an increasingly complicated provider system where patients switch from provider to provider, health information technology provides doctors access to a comprehensive patient history and the potential to organize and store information in a much powerful way than paper file folders can offer.

Furthermore, what we should be touting about health technology is the potential for a strong communication tool between doctors and patients. Interaction in the current doctor-patient relationship is frustrated by access. Visits are brief and phone calls are challenging to arrange. Electronic communication facilitates contact with compelling convenience, allowing doctors to have a robust role in teaching people how to take care of themselves. We have to remind physicians that this is a golden opportunity to return to the root of what it means to be a doctor, which in Latin, means “teacher.” The ability to communicate and exchange information to deliver the best possible care is the true promise of health technology.

Carol is thankful for her iPad, her Android, her Macbook Pro, and her new iPod watch.

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