Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Hospitals Slow to Go Paperless Despite Benefits

Guest Post: Hospitals Slow to Go Paperless Despite Benefits

If you are walking into an ER, you better have a reliable memory of your last doctor's visit, the medications you have taken, and any x-rays you've had in the last year. Unless you are walking into one of the very few hospitals in the United States that has gone paperless, your wait could be very long. This is because hospitals are still using an outdated method of managing information: paper.

Healthcare is far behind other industries when it comes to information technology and document management. Hospitals and patients could greatly benefit from the conveniences an upgraded IT system could provide. This isn’t wishful thinking or guesswork. The benefits for hospitals and patients have been proven.

In 2009, Johns Hopkins released a now famous statewide study that demonstrated the benefits of hospitals using paperless technologies. The study included over 40 hospitals and 160,000 patients and found a correlation between computerizing records and overall hospital safety and effectiveness.

The hospitals with the top paperless technologies in the state showed a 15% decrease in the odds of patients dying while hospitalized. Imagine if we could see this kind of decrease throughout the rest of the healthcare industry. Assuming this decrease would hold true for all US hospitals, going paperless across the country could save more than 100,000 lives every year.

Patients aren't the only ones who could benefit from hospitals upgrading their IT systems. Hospitals can earn awards from the government for digitizing their records. President Obama signed the Health and Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act to offer incentives for hospitals that go paperless.

The bill set criteria for grants and tax breaks based on the degree to which medical records are computerized. The bill allowed hospitals to slowly adapt to new technology by awarding credit for even a little progress. More than $9 billion has already been handed out to medical care providers who have only partially met the criteria.

The law won't sound so generous as the deadline for hospitals to meet these criteria is fast approaching. Not all of the bill’s strategy was positive reinforcement. Hospitals must meet all the criteria and go completely paperless by 2015 or the bill's financial penalties will kick in.

With all the incentive for hospitals to go paperless, it may seem baffling why less than 2% of hospitals have done so. One reason could be the chaotic and confusing transition process each hospital must go through to update their IT.

“It takes time for emerging technologies to mature and for users to make sufficient progress along the learning curve before the benefits of innovation can be realized,” said the vice president of research at CompTIA, an organization studying the subject.

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine cited doctor resistance and high costs as the top reasons for hospitals not going digital. Despite allocating $19 billion for hospitals to hire EHR consultants and upgrade their information technology, government programs designed to get hospitals off paper by 2015 have largely failed. Since the stimulus passed in 2009, the percentage of U.S. hospitals that have gone paperless increased by only 0.3% to 1.8%.

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