Healthcare IT: Think Huge, Then Triple It

Posted on August 29, 2013

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Healthcare draws strange analogies sometimes.  Already I have read of information technology (IT) in healthcare in the context of “Big Data” (kin to Big Oil, Big Auto and Too Big to Fail).  Astronomy is not a strong suit in my scientific repertoire; however, I was always intrigued with the theories often attached to a universe:  infinite and constantly expanding.  It is the way I can best understand and explain information technology’s presence in the healthcare industry.  Healthcare IT is the definition of the word universal.

Information Technology in healthcare was comprehensively defined at the ASHE Annual Meeting this year as “the system of healthcare technology, electronic medical records, building equipment and computer technology”.  What makes HC IT so hard to handle is that all components of this definition are expanding, and their relevance will be infinite.

  • Healthcare Technology is growing from the inside-out:  collecting data on how hospital systems themselves operate, the types of patients they see, acuity, outcomes, demographics; almost endless benchmarks and metrics.
  • Electronic Medical Records (EMR) are being universally adopted, yet there are still a handful of popular platforms with no dominant system, or defined rules for use.  What will they look like in three years? Ten?
  • Building Equipment continues to get more sophisticated and integrated as the traditional system ‘guts’ of a building—electric, HVAC, plumbing—meet an array of ever-expanding smart medical equipment—everything from patient beds to refrigerators—that need to communicate with each other, and assist with clinical care.
  • Computer Technology and its demands keep advancing as more treatment and information transfer happens digitally, instantaneously, wirelessly, securely and visually.  Monitors, handhelds, robots.

Regarding patient data, it could be argued Big Data is in its infancy in healthcare:  most healthcare systems either collect too little (don’t know what to collect or how to do it well), or the data they collect is underutilized (gathered but not parsed and organized in a manageable way—a way to facilitate actionable decisions for improved outcomes).

And then there are the stories of how intelligently and responsibly data is managed—or not.  Just this week, both Becker’s Hospital Review and The Advisory Board published pieces about how to manage Big Data and how to manage data leaks, corruption and security breaches, respectively.  It was hinted most hospitals could not even tell if they had a security breach, let alone savvy execution of proper steps in damage control.

Right now, non-healthcare customers are worried about the effects of credit card, social security number, and identity theft from financial institutions.  Let me say, credit card companies have some of the most secure and technologically advanced bunkers for handling that data and transactions.  Currently, the way healthcare data is handled is not even in the same league.  How valuable are our health records?  How prepared are hospitals for disasters?

In one ASHE session, attendees learned the entire Library of Congress is composed of 17-20 terabytes of information, while Kaiser Permanente’s health information database is 4700 terabytes—and expanding.  Wow.  Probably 250x larger by the time you read this.

The last thing patients want to feel is that IT and data are powerful tools in the hands of an inexperienced user.  We know a teen driver and a V12 sports car are a scary combination.  A prudent position is to master what you’ve got first, even if it’s a four-cylinder hatchback, before upgrading.  As healthcare design moves forward, administrators and designers must be prepared for the infinite and universal nature—constant change, constant expansion, touching everything—of information technology.  It will continue to cost and change more, but it does not need to be a financial or logistics tar pit.

HC IT is the classic application for adaptable design because almost nothing is changing faster, and with such an unknown future need, than information technology in healthcare.  Take baby steps, but think big and quickly, because there is a whole universe out there to explore and master.

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Posted in: Healthcare IT