RAND Studies How Information Technology Can Benefit Health Care And Save Lives

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RAND Office of Media Relations

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August 7, 2003

RAND Health announced today it is conducting a study to determine how much patient care could improve and how much money could be saved if health care professionals around the United States increase their use of information technology.

"While doctors use the latest 21st century medical technology in their practices, many use 19th century technology to store and retrieve information about their patients' health conditions, relying on paper medical records that aren't easily shared with other doctors," said Richard Hillestad, a RAND management scientist who will head the project.

"Electronic information systems have transformed many industries, improving quality and lowering costs," Hillestad said. "But, contrary to predictions, information systems haven't had that effect in health care, mostly because the health industry has been slow to implement clinical information systems."

Information technology is widely used today in health care for administrative systems such as computerized billing, appointment scheduling, and inventory management. It is also used in stand-alone clinical systems such as laboratories and pharmacies.

However, few health care professionals use information technology such as electronic medical records, which can be easily shared between patients' treating physicians and clinical decision support systems. RAND's study will focus on these and other such clinical applications of information technology.

The study will look at hospitals and other healthcare organizations that have adopted the latest information technology. It will also review past medical research on the potential of the technology, and create scenarios that will help test the potential value of the systems.

Study leaders expect to identify barriers to the widespread adoption of information technology in healthcare. They will outline government policies and other steps that could increase its use.

Advocates of using more information technology in medicine believe that integrated systems can help cut costs and improve medical care.

A 2001 report from the Institute of Medicine that examined the quality of health care in the United States found that information technology should play a central role in the redesign of the health care system. The study found that "if substantial improvement is to be achieved over the coming decade... automation of clinical, financial, and administrative transactions is essential to improving quality, preventing errors, enhancing consumer confidence in the health system, and improving efficiency."

A recent groundbreaking RAND study found that most Americans receive only about half of the recommended medical care and advocated electronic medical record and clinical decision support systems as a way to help solve the problem. Researchers in that study noted that the deficiencies in care they found pose "serious threats to the health of the American public" that could contribute to thousands of preventable deaths in the United States each year.

"We not only need to understand why medical information technology adoption has been less aggressive than many anticipated, but also quantify—where we can—what the true value of increased automation would be," said David Lawrence, M.D., the former chief executive officer of Kaiser Permanente and head of the RAND project's steering committee. "This study will help us determine if the current system has the right resource allocations."

Because relatively few health systems have integrated all of their information technology, it has been hard for researchers to evaluate what might be the national impact of broader adoption of medical information technology.

As Congressional leaders discuss reforming Medicare and adding prescription drug benefits, the role of information technology has been missing from the debate, researchers say. One reason may be that national policymakers cannot quantify the potential benefits of widespread information technology adoption.

A diverse collection of companies has committed financial support to the RAND research, including Johnson & Johnson, Xerox, General Electric, Cerner Corp. and Hewlett-Packard.

In addition to Lawrence, other health care and technology leaders who will advise the project include:

    Peter W. Butler, M.H.S.A., Rush North Shore Medical Center; Denis Cortese, M.D., Mayo Foundation; Helen Darling, M.A., Washington Business Group on Health; Nancy-Ann DeParle, J.D., former administrator of the federal Healthcare Financing Administration (HCFA) and now with JPMorgan Partners, LLC; Bob Herbold, Ph.D., Microsoft; James Hudak, United Behavioral Health; Gary Mecklenburg, M.B.A., Northwestern Memorial Healthcare; Herbert Pardes, M.D., New York Presbyterian Hospital; Judy Pelham, M.P.H., Trinity Health System; John Porter, J.D., former Congressman from Illinois and now with Hogan & Hartson, LLP; William Roper, M.D., M.P.H., School of Public Health, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill; John Rother, American Association of Retired People; and Ralph Snyderman, M.D., Duke University Health System.

RAND Health is one of the nation's leading health policy research organizations with a broad portfolio that focuses on health care costs, medical quality and delivery of health care, among other topics.


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