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Asia Business Development – Asia Business Consulting » Healthcare Information Technology: Big data in the hands of doctors
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SpirE-Journal 2014 Q2

Healthcare Information Technology: Big data in the hands of doctors

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Healthcare Information Technology: Big data in the hands of doctors

The movement to digitize healthcare information promises to deliver massive gains in efficiency, effectiveness and patient access to personal data. The next steps in this revolution involve making health data accessible via mobile devices and applying big data analytics. Can healthcare IT really revolutionize the age-old healthcare industry?

Medical records have traditionally been stored at hospitals and medical centers in the form of paper or analogue film explaining the old joke about doctor’s handwriting. Remarkably, a large share of medical records across the world is still stored in this way, especially in developing economies.

But for decades now, a quiet revolution has been underway to make medical information digital, portable across different medical institutions, amenable to big data analytics and accessible to the patient. This revolution is now nearing the tipping point when big changes may become visible.

Nowadays, leading healthcare providers in developed and developing countries are leaving conventional paper-based approaches in the dust as they actively use healthcare IT to improve patient care. One estimate forecasts the global healthcare IT market to reach USD 53.8 billion by 2014 growing at a steady Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 16.1%.

Healthcare IT is an emerging field which encompasses an array of technologies to collect, store, retrieve, share as well as analyze health information electronically. It should also be an easy-to-use, functional and cost-effective platform that is customized to the needs of healthcare providers; ensuring that the information remains secure, protecting patient privacy and facilitating better practice of medicine.

Healthcare IT can come in various forms:

Electronic Health Records (EHR)

An EHR is a digital collection of patients’ medical information compiled during one or more appointments at a healthcare delivery setting. This information is used by clinicians. It consists of data about patients’ demographic status, progress notes, medication, immunization, past medical history and any test reports. Doctors can then readily track patients’ medical information or even share the data with colleagues.

Personal Health Records (PHR)

A PHR compiles one’s personal health history and is maintained by the patient. It contains key data such as the doctor’s name, medications, allergies, chronic health problems, surgeries, prescription records and so on. The information can be stored on any device such as a personal computer, smart-phone or even paper. PHRs allow patients to track their personal health routines such as food intake, exercise and blood pressure. Patients can choose to submit their PHRs to their clinicians, so that they can better analyze the patients’ health and make informed treatment decisions.

Electronic prescribing

Electronic prescribing is the transmission and filing of a medical prescription electronically. This removes the hassle of a doctor’s note getting lost or misinterpreted due to illegible handwriting. Moreover, it allows the doctor or nurse to electronically transmit the prescription directly to the pharmacy so that patients can directly go to the pharmacy to collect their medicines.

Online health communities

These communities allow patients and their family members to learn about a medical condition as well as seek and offer support to people with similar medical conditions. Existing health portals such as WedMD and HealthCloud offer interactive community features such as “Discussion Forums”. Such social networking sites have increased reliance on peer education and support.

The Healthcare IT value proposition to healthcare providers

At present, the healthcare industry is highly fragmented with many untapped opportunities to provide innovative solutions. Delivering quality healthcare services requires the integration of complex information from multiple sources.

Some of the benefits that the hospitals and healthcare providers can derive from healthcare IT include:

Enabling accurate data storage

Complex medical information can now be stored and retrieved readily and systematically. As mentioned earlier, the implementation of EHR allows accurate storage and quick access to a patient’s medical history so that the healthcare providers can make better informed treatment decisions.

Facilitating automated process flow

IT allows the laboratories, radiology, surgery and administrative departments in the hospitals to be far more interconnected. An integrated process flow coupled with high-speed bandwidth would facilitate easy and cost-effective communication and exchange of information.

Reducing document overload

Coordinating patient data was a nightmare in the past; involving the collection of documents from different departments, all passing through a gigantic bottleneck residing in each hospital known as the medical records office. Clinicians having access to vital patient information at their fingertips would enable faster lab results, medication orders and reduced waiting time for emergency visits. It would also enhance decision-making for treatments, as well as reduce erroneous diagnosis as a result of information gaps.

Barriers to the implementation of Healthcare IT

Though healthcare IT has revolutionized the healthcare industry, barriers to implementation remain. These follow two broad themes – IT infrastructure gaps and cultural impediments.

Cumbersome and complex IT systems

Not all healthcare providers have shown the same skills in staying ahead of the curve of technology and meeting the need for constant software upgrades and maintenance. In many cases, job description and organization chart redesigns have proved necessary. Moreover, to maximize the benefits, clinicians must be frequent users of the system who can perform data entry with ease as well as retrieve information readily. Not all clinicians are equally IT-savvy.

Expensive implementation

The incorporation of technology into healthcare processes may be expensive. Small hospitals may not have sufficient critical mass and funding to support the conversion from paper to electronic files. This points to the crucial role of the state in providing critical mass, funding as well as in harmonizing procedures and standards.

Small hospitals may not have sufficient critical mass and funding to support the conversion from paper to electronic files. This points to the crucial role of the state in providing critical mass, funding as well as in harmonizing procedures and standards.

Network and Privacy issues

Retrieving accurate medical information can be a very time-sensitive matter. At the same time, medical information needs to remain confidential for ethical and legal reasons. However, unauthorized intrusion may still occur after all, no IT system is invulnerable. Moreover, undetected network failure as well as insufficient bandwidth could also impede the process flow.

Emerging trends in healthcare IT

There is no doubt that the future of healthcare is digital. Some recent trends point to how the barriers to deeper adoption of healthcare IT can be overcome.

Mobile healthcare

Mobile healthcare (M-Health) is the latest buzzword in the industry. The M-Health market was estimated to be worth USD 6.6 billion in 2013. It is expected to hit USD 20.7 billion by 2018, growing by 25 per cent on average each year.

Many companies are already forming strategic collaborations to leverage these opportunities. For instance in 2012, Japan’s telco giant NTT DoCoMo partnered leading Japanese manufacturer of health products Omron, to form DoCoMo healthcare as an extension to M-Health solutions. They formally launched Karada-no-kimochi in June 2013, one of DoCoMo’s healthcare mobile apps targeted at women. It links DoCoMo smartphones to Omron’s digital thermometers, enabling women to track their daily body temperature; particularly useful in calculating ovulation dates.

DoCoMo smartphones linked to Omron's digital thermometers enable women to track their daily body temperature and calculate ovulation dates.

Cloud computing

Coupled with cloud computing, healthcare IT offers various benefits, including accessibility to information regardless of geographical barriers, reduced errors and improved response time during emergencies. In addition, storing Protected Health Information (PHI) in a private cloud promises more security compared to data stored in a local desktop or memory stick.

In 2013, GE Healthcare launched a cloud service, Centricity 360, as a collaboration tool for clinicians. The tool decreases the chances of duplicate testing for healthcare providers and patients; preventing unnecessary transfer of patients as well as incurring lowered cost for diagnostic imaging distribution.

Telemedicine

Telemedicine is the usage of both telecommunication and IT to provide remote healthcare. It also comes across as a cost-effective medium that offers personalized healthcare experiences. According to a recent study by the Department of Health in 2014, telemedicine can reduce emergency room visits, elective admissions and bed days by 15%, 14% and 14% respectively.

Patient empowerment

Patients have been increasingly turning to online portals to obtain health-related information leading to some clinicians to joke about the self-diagnosing patient. According to one projection, patient-related portals will grow by 221 per cent to 2017.

What lies ahead for healthcare IT?

The emergence of smartphone apps and wearable technology is set to overtake the physician’s traditional role of vital-sign recording, activity logging, heart-rhythm tracing and other forms of in-depth physical examination. The prospect of visiting a virtual doctor is likely to gain acceptance over time.

The emergence of smartphone apps and wearable technology is set to overtake the physician's traditional role of vital-sign recording and other signs of in-depth physical examination.

Technology is empowering patients’ medical websites and peer groups are giving patients the confidence to hold their clinicians to greater account. Conversely, technology is also creating more options for healthcare providers; enabling them to operate remotely and across geographic boundaries.

The advance of healthcare IT is poised to add value to the most important healthcare battle to be waged in the 21st century prevention. As healthcare reform takes root across the world and chronic conditions like diabetes, Alzheimer’s and heart disease continue to take their toll, healthcare funders will turn their investment dollars towards prevention. Healthcare IT promises to be a game changer here. For instance, new forms of technology are being practiced in genetic testing for earlier detection of any ailment. The integration of data across multiple healthcare providers and the application of big data analytics promises to yield major gains in early risk detection and prevention.

However, a systematic shift in focus across the healthcare sector is required for integrative, IT-driven healthcare to flourish. Legacy systems and process, to use IT jargon, are entrenched for a reason.

While most clinical staff in more developed economies are IT-literate and most hospitals are well-connected, the same cannot be said for emerging economies, where most clinicians are habituated to hard copies and analog film and where internet connectivity is not always reliable. To change these entrenched habits and systems, state action is crucial. Healthcare IT providers will need to work closely with governments in the emerging world to push through the changes that are needed to truly realize the potential of the healthcare IT revolution.

 

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