Turning Information into Insight

by John Dineen
May 1, 2009

This essay by John Dineen, President and CEO, GE Healthcare, is a part of the 2009 Forum Challenge: Moving Beyond the Limitations of the Traditional Healthcare System.

Health care systems throughout the world face many challenges that threaten their sustainability. These include increased migration, aging populations, flu pandemics, and a plethora of lifestyle-related diseases, all of which are changing health care needs and creating new health threats. As a result, in many societies, people live longer but not always healthier. Our health care systems are ill-equipped for these shifts, and they face increased public scrutiny and demand for more higher-quality services. The current global economic crisis will only add to these pressures.

Fortunately, we see a convergence of innovations from across medical technologies and life-sciences, driven by information technology (IT). By increasing consistency, advancing evidence-based medicine, and improving productivity, IT can fundamentally shift the landscape of health care&#8212from the traditional model of treating illness, to a more proactive and efficient system based on prevention, earlier diagnosis, and personalized medicine. To make clinical care more disease-and patient-specific, each country would benefit from an IT infrastructure of comprehensive electronic health records that include evidence-based, clinical decision support and disease management.

To date, most IT applications and infrastructures have been deployed in isolation, suffering from interoperability challenges and making systematic evaluation and enhancement of care problematic. Fortunately, we can learn from early adopters who have integrated IT into their entire care process and are able to show that medical care improves while costs go down. We are also aware that the quality of care is highly dependent on whether medical institutions leverage the latest medical evidence. GE Healthcare is currently working with Mayo Clinic Rochester and Intermountain Healthcare to develop software that will enable “virtual publishing” of evidence-based protocols, so great care is equally available to all institutions.

The potential gains from fully integrating IT as the backbone of any health care system are enormous, but appropriate deployment is challenging. Intermountain Healthcare found that by optimizing processes, they were able to streamline operations, improve clinical quality, and achieve 80 percent evidence-based care across facilities, compared to a national average of 10-20 percent. Health care requires perhaps the most complex application of IT in any industry. Its intricate workflow interactions make digitization more than just a technical or financial issue; there is, therefore, a compelling need for evidence-based evaluation of these IT systems to define net benefits.

Everyone has a responsibility and contribution to make. We have the technology, but its adoption by providers and payors has been slow, and this recession may slow things even more. To progress faster, governments and payors throughout the world must provide the kinds of incentives for healthcare providers to adopt broad-based integrated IT that were included in the U.S. economic stimulus package enacted in February 2009. To ensure effective use of these funds, health care systems must have “meaningful change” not by replacing paper but as a first step towards higher performing practice—high quality care at an appropriate cost for as many patients as possible.

At the Forum for Personal Health we will discuss how to instill a drive for innovation and greater evidence-based consistency in the health care delivery and payment industry. I hope we can encourage the increased IT adoption that will help bring about such changes and deliver much needed benefits to patients and the economy sooner.