Winter 2003/Vol. 7, No. 1
Since the late 1950s, health care visionaries have predicted an information technology (IT) revolution within medical care delivery--a revolution that would transform the health care industry as it had the finance and retail sectors. The early pioneers of medical informatics--the study and use of computers and IT in health care--formulated a vision for literally transforming modern medicine through use of clinical IT systems. Many examples exist that show how such systems support management of health care outcomes, drug interaction checking, order entry, and electronic capture of a patient's vital signs as well as clinical notes made by health care practitioners. Key advances in clinical IT can be a catalyst for early intervention in disease processes, improvement in health care outcomes and care management, reduction of medical errors, and increases in both administrative efficiency and patient satisfaction.
of the time needed to realize the promise of clinical IT applications
in the United States were optimistic. In 1991, the Institute of Medicine's
Committee on Improving the Patient Record set a goal of making computer-based
patient records a standard use of IT in health care by 2001.1
To date, however, the clinical IT revolution
Today, a few health care delivery systems have positioned themselves to overcome barriers to implementing clinical IT applications and have pioneered their use in US health care. For example, health care delivery systems such as LDS Hospital, the Mayo Clinic, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Kaiser Permanente, and the Veterans Health Administration (among others) have successful systems in place that represent multimillion-dollar investments made over many years--or decades. However, most health care practitioners and institutions in the United States are not well positioned either financially or in terms of organizational readiness to implement the IT infrastructure necessary to deploy clinical information systems.
What is a Clinical Information System?
Clinical information system is an umbrella term that has been applied to a broad range of clinical information technology and to various configurations of clinical application components. Additional terms are used to describe information systems that support delivery of health care: electronic medical record system, health information system, and computer-based patient record system are a few. In the past, these systems have typically been clinically oriented, homegrown applications designed on legacy platforms and were used primarily by larger hospitals and health care provider organizations to focus on practitioners' need for information.
Use of IT applications in health care is rapidly evolving beyond what was considered a clinical information system. Clinical IT now encompasses new tools and services that are delivered or enhanced by the Internet and by other advanced networking technologies, including telemedicine, wireless handheld devices, speech recognition systems, and home monitoring devices. Many of these new products and services are both component-based and "off-the-shelf" instead of being custom-made by each end-user. As emerging IT applications are introduced into the health care industry, the term "clinical information system"--and even the current MeSH (Medical Subject Heading) term "hospital information system" used by the National Library of Medicine--becomes increasingly inadequate to describe these technologies. A new term will probably be developed as this technology continues to evolve.
The commercial marketplace for clinical IT products has evolved dramatically in recent years through corporate mergers, acquisitions, and other challenges to fledgling startup companies. Cerner Corporation and Eclipsys Corporation, two vendors of clinical IT solutions, have acquired the greatest share of the market. Other major participants include Epic Systems Corporation (Madison, WI), IDX (Burlington, VT), McKesson (San Francisco, CA), Siemens Medical Solutions (Erlangen, Germany), and Meditech (Westwood, MA).2,3 Industry analysts estimate that only 5% of the health care IT market has been penetrated, and this estimate has led to optimistic growth forecasts for vendors of clinically focused IT products as the market continues to mature.2
Most customers will build an initial foundation of database and data entry capabilities that are gradually supplemented with additional components, such as those featured in Table 1.4
A Bridge to a New Health Care Paradigm
Evidence-based medicine provides an explicit framework of scientifically validated information for medical decision making and is the cornerstone for a paradigm shift in health care. Evidence-based medicine supports implementation of cutting-edge programs for health care management and can lead to improved patient health outcomes as well as to cost-effective care. Yet, despite exponential increase in the biomedical knowledge base and revolutionary advances in technology, the health care industry continues to rely on a clinical information distribution framework that has changed little over the past century. We might call this framework the "old paradigm."
The practice of medicine has grown almost unmanageably complex. The limitations of the health care system at the beginning of the 21st Century are such that the old medical care paradigm is less viable and emergence of a new way of practicing medicine is almost inevitable. Four signs suggest that the traditional medical paradigm is not well suited for the 21st Century: nonviability of paper-based systems for supporting clinical care; increasing unreliability of medical practice that depends on human memory; business need for capturing clinical data; and increasing consumer expectations for improved health care.
Nonviability of Paper-Based
Systems for Supporting Clinical Care
of Human-Memory-Based Medicine
Capturing Clinical Data:
A New Business Imperative
Rising Consumer Expectations
for Improved Health Care and Services
Evidence of Benefits from Clinical Information Systems
Since the 1960s, researchers from universities, health care systems, and the federal government have attempted to show the value of clinical information systems. The Kaiser Permanente Institute for Health Policy was established in mid-1999 to provide a focus and resources for Kaiser Permanente to better participate in shaping the nation's health policy agenda. Working in collaboration with foundations, policy institutes, research programs, policymakers, and other organizations, the Institute seeks to develop unbiased information about policy issues and alternatives. To better understand the body of evidence about clinical information systems, the Institute reviewed many of the published studies regarding use of information technology in delivery of health care. This review included the following highlights:
the literature review suggests real promise from these
Roadblocks to Implementation of Clinical Information Systems
Unlike other information-rich industries, health care--the largest service industry in the US economy--has not fully benefited from the information revolution. Why have health care providers failed to migrate to clinical information technology?
Part of the answer lies in decisions regarding IT resource allocation. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, IT investments made by health care organizations focused primarily on financial and administrative systems.12 Applications for patient registration and accounting were introduced to improve efficiency of workflow and billing processes. Avoiding the anticipated Y2K crisis occupied the health care IT agenda during 1998 and 1999. Most health care organizations postponed new IT investment and instead focused resources on preventing projected Y2K problems in financial and administrative applications.18 Today, a variety of nonclinical IT solutions compete with clinical information technology for the scarce capital funds of health care organizations. These competing technologic applications include practice management applications, supply-chain automation, and Web-based customer relations software.
The high cost of basic infrastructure of clinical information technology is a substantial hurdle for many health care organizations, many of whose income margins have deteriorated after years of decreasing reimbursement (from Medicare and other sources) and whose access to capital for new medical technology is extremely scarce. Diversity of products as well as lack of standards and common architecture further complicate these circumstances. Financial instability and scarce capital resources for IT infrastructure similarly affect small to mid-sized independent practice associations (IPAs) and independent physician offices, the practice venues for most physicians in the United States.
Decisions regarding IT investment are often painstakingly evaluated by health care organizations on the basis of measures such as cost-per-doctor-per-month, cost-per-member-per-month, and short-term return on investment. Return on investment for a clinical information system is neither easy to measure nor necessarily the most appropriate indicator of its success. Benefits such as provider convenience, patient satisfaction, and service efficiency can substantially affect health care operations but are not easily documented as increased revenue, decreased expenses, or expenses avoided. This difficulty has made many health care organizations unable to justify major resource investment in clinical IT without either a strong business case or market forces that dictate such investment.
Beyond resource constraints, other barriers to widespread implementation of clinical information systems exist in the United States:
Public Policy Needed to Enable Implementation of Clinical IT Systems
In the near term, clinical IT is unlikely to be adopted widely in the absence of sound public policy. In our review of these issues we have identified four policy recommendations that deserve serious consideration:
Despite modest uptake of clinical IT systems in medical practice, growing evidence shows that such technology has substantial potential for positively benefiting delivery of health care. Increasing evidence shows also that the automated medical record and other emerging tools for managing clinical information will lead to a new paradigm of evidence-based, patient-centric health care. Review of the health care literature and experience gained by various health care organizations support the conclusion that such a system can improve clinician performance, enhance clinical outcomes, and decrease medical errors. Many of these applications and the benefit they produce will probably become the "community standard of care" during the next decade and should consequently improve both patient care and patient satisfaction. Thus, health care organizations must encourage broader implementation of this technology, and policy makers must develop sound public policy that identifies and overcomes current barriers and disincentives to implementing clinical IT systems.