By Josh Barnard
Across America, today’s high-tech healthcare facilities have the look and feel of the future. With multimillion-dollar diagnostic tools, laboratory equipment, and treatment resources, these buildings house some of the most technologically advanced equipment the average citizen will ever see. Yet these facilities are decades behind in the area of information technology. This discrepancy is what Dr. Frank Waterstraat, program manager of the University of Wisconsin online Health Information Management and Technology (HIMT) program, strives to change.
In 2004, President George W. Bush put into motion a ten-year plan to “avoid dangerous medical mistakes, reduce costs, and improve care,” as he stated in his State of the Union address. The key would be to ensure that each citizen had his or her own electronic health record (EHR). Five years later, the Obama administration enacted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This economic stimulus package included the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act, which earmarked a $25.8 billion investment in health information technology.
“The Obama administration said it would give financial incentives to any healthcare provider that implemented electronic health records,” Waterstraat reports. “And in 2015, they are going to start penalizing providers for not using information technology.”
In Waterstraat’s words, “That put the foot on the gas pedal.” He predicts that by 2015, 80 to 90 percent of clinical data will be captured in digital form. While all of these data likely would exist anyway, their confinement to paper records would have made it all but impossible to extract, rendering it essentially useless. “This information would sit in a manila folder in a filing cabinet in the basement of some doctor’s office,” Waterstraat says. “But now, it will be available electronically—you’ll be able to pull it down just like when you go to Amazon to find out what the latest price is of a book you need to buy for class.”
Waterstraat notes that this concept is not new. In the business world, some of the terms used are “big data,” “data mining,” or “predictive analytics.” Businesses mine customers’ online presence for information: purchase habits, social media interactions, payment preferences, and more are all recorded in an effort to predict and cater to their needs.
“Now take this and apply it to healthcare,” Waterstraat suggests. “What if we had all the data on all the people treated? And I’m not just saying sample data—I mean everything.” Just one benefit, according to him, is that pharmacies could tailor their stock based on their patrons’ purchases, ensuring that they always have access to the medication they need. By collecting and collating health information to make predictions about people’s health needs, the healthcare industry aims to improve the health of the entire population.
Waterstraat notes that jobs in paper record management are disappearing quickly as electronic health records take hold. With data available for nearly every citizen, the health data analyses will reveal the true health and healthcare needs of the population, no guesswork or extrapolation required. With high confidence, the patterns can be analyzed to inform healthcare providers and improve healthcare decisions and delivery.
The problem is that the demand for such a technologically skilled workforce far outweighs the supply of qualified candidates. There simply aren’t enough people who are capable of collecting and processing these data. The UW HIMT program is designed to create this workforce. Its curriculum focuses on two areas: clinical data and information technology. “We’ve brought together instructors with technical and information technology and data analysis skills,” Waterstraat says, “and what we have built is a program that will teach all those principles and how to apply them in a healthcare setting.”
Waterstraat asserts that eventually every healthcare provider will be required to use an electronic records system and the information it can provide. “Whether it is a major medical center or a local chiropractor, they will want to gauge the community’s general health status so they can align their services and practices with the health needs of the community,” Waterstraat says. “That is where our program—and the industry—is headed.”