More work is coming for IT professionals who understand
health care processes and can implement document management systems. Both systems professionals and process workflow experts
will be needed as the nation’s health care system grapples with the government’s
mandate to convert from paper to electronic health records.
By Doug Bartholomew
As part of the stimulus plan passed in February, Congress enacted
the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act. The law
sets aside roughly $36 billion for health information exchange infrastructure
and financial incentives for physicians to adopt electronic health records, or “EHRs”. Although much of the
funding won’t be available until 2011 – the initiative’s start date – many
physicians’ groups, clinics, and medical laboratories are expected to begin
converting to a digital format over the next year or so.
“There’s going to be quite a bit of work for IT
professionals in this space,” says Sam
Karp, vice president of programs at California
HealthCare Foundation in Oakland,
which supports efforts to increase the use of new information technologies in the
space. “Only a very small percentage of physicians have already adopted
these technologies, so there’s a high potential for new business, and many
consulting companies will be looking to beef up their staff as a result.”
Most big health maintenance organizations and large hospital
groups have at least begun, if not completed, the laborious and costly shift to
adopt EHRs. Kaiser Permanente, one
of the nation’s largest health care organizations, years ago initiated its
HealthConnect system. While it hasn’t been without its glitches, HealthConnect
has been successful in enabling physicians and patients to go online to see
medical test results and exchange e-mail.
But for the vast number of small and midsize medical groups
and doctor’s offices throughout the country, the dependence on paper-based
patient records stuffed inside manila folders continues. “Health care is
still a cottage industry with large numbers of specialty care providers and
laboratories around the country,” says Karp. “It’s the last industry
to embrace technology to achieve the benefits it offers, including lower costs.”
It’s that promise of lower costs that’s driving the
conversion plan. The Obama Administration has set a goal of utilizing IT
systems to integrate 90 percent of doctors and 70 percent of hospitals by 2016.
“Because so many physician practices, particularly the
smaller ones, haven’t adopted digital tools, there’ll be a need to assist these
practices,” Karp explains. “We believe jobs will be created to help
physicians plan their systems and adopt the new technologies, as well as to provide
training and support.”
Focus on Small Firms
Karp says the biggest opportunity will be for small
consulting firms to help individual physicians and small medical groups make
the changeover. Among the skills that will be useful is an understanding of the
systems that support workflow and
networking within a small or midsize office.
For instance, one of the most popular networking systems for
small firms is Microsoft Sharepoint.
Also useful are document imaging systems such as Nuance Software’s scanning tools.
In addition, consultants should be familiar with some of the
more common healthcare clinical information systems that support EHRs. An
estimated 400 vendors offer practice management systems for scheduling and
billing, as well as various EHR applications. Some of the more commonly used
ones are Open Vista from MedSphere
Systems Corp.; Centricity Electronic Medical Record from General Electric; Omni MD; and
gloStream EMR Software, an EHR and
practice management system that works in conjunction with Microsoft Office.
The conversion will be expensive, with much of the cost
going into the labor needed to convert billions of medical records. Uncle Sam
is expected to foot at least a portion of the tab, committing $40,000 to
$65,000 per physician.
“Scanning is not rocket science, but there is no fast
way of doing it, especially with medical records, which will require a high
attention to detail,” observes Cheryl
Shelmadine, owner of CopyTec Legal
Services in Foster City, Calif., which provides document management
services for legal and medical offices.
Also useful will be a familiarity with various types of
applications used to bring about the conversion from paper to digital. These
include medical records repositories, patient management systems, and billing
systems. For example, one low-priced option for smaller medical offices is the
eClinicalWorks EMR system
available from Walmart’s Sam’s Clubs
stores, preloaded on Dell computers.
Although some classes are available, there’s no
special certification or training program for IT professionals seeking a niche
as consultants in healthcare conversion. But Karp says the size of the
opportunity may entice both practitioners and colleges to focus on it. The
government’s effort toward digitization “may give some idea to people who
are thinking about career changes,” he says. “And we may see
community colleges developing programs to support the change as well.”
Doug Bartholomew is a business and technology writer who lives and works in California.