Prescription for Change

by AMAR GUPTA ,  The Wall Street Journal | 2008-10-20

The health-care industry is about to undergo a global revolution driven by a force it can no longer resist: information technology.

While hospitals and other care providers have long been quick to adopt breakthrough technology in medical devices, procedures and treatments, far less attention has focused on innovations in networking and communications.

This is partly because of concerns about breaches in security and patient privacy, and because health care until recently was a service always performed locally, and in person. Big computer networks and the core benefits they offer -- such as increased group productivity and access to data -- weren't on the health-care sector's radar screen.

But that is about to change. IT security will eventually meet the expectations of the health-care industry, just as has happened in other sectors, like banking. And when it does, powerful IT networks crisscrossing the globe will change the way much of health care is delivered: Outsourcing and offshoring of medical and nonmedical services will increase, providing more efficient health care at the most cost-effective rates; systems integrations will allow more medical records to be transferred swiftly and securely; efforts to monitor the safety of medicines will gain global access to data; and professionals and patients will find authoritative and up-to-date information on every specialty online.

In the future, there will be three often overlapping modes of delivering health-care services: services performed in person by humans, services that can be performed by people at a remote location, and services performed by computers without direct human involvement. Offshore outsourcing in combination with a 24-hour work cycle will be appropriate when certain conditions are met -- mainly, if the information involved in the task can be digitized, and if workers at different sites can do their jobs independently from one another.

These changes won't come quickly. There will be plenty of obstacles as institutions and networks reach across borders and encounter different laws as well as technical standards. Licensing, accreditation and accounting issues will arise as well. But eventually all such issues can be resolved by proper regulatory structures and market forces.

 Christoph NiemannIn the meantime, health-care organizations that don't join in the coming changes will incur higher costs and less integration. This will make them less competitive in the global health-care marketplace, just as is happening with companies that have resisted outsourcing and systems integration in other sectors.

What follows is a look at four major ways in which IT will revolutionize health care: more offshore services, integration of health-information systems, drug-safety monitoring on a global scale, and more high-quality information to doctors and patients.

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