Healthcare Struggles Amid Unprecedented Changes in IT

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The healthcare industry has been hit with a lot of IT changes of late.

Between Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act mandates, new HIPAA requirements, ICD-10 Conversion, the switch to EMRs, hacking and phishing threats and the influx of "Bring Your Own Devices," it's enough to make any hospital IT executive's head spin.

Healthcare organizations must learn from other industries and seek help from firms with IT support expertise if they hope to rise to the challenge.

IT mandates and regulations grow exponentially
Despite recent efforts to defund or delay it, the PPACA continues to barrel forward, including big changes rippling through healthcare IT. State health insurance exchanges are cranking up, an effort heavily dependent on information technology (and not off to a great start in that area). The law also offers further incentives for making records electronic and pushes for the creation of accountable care organizations.

HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius has described IT services as a "critical underpinning" of ACOs and other main strategies of the PPACA. IT services allow physicians and other providers to obtain real-time information about a patient's history of illnesses and prescriptions. She credited the law with a 1 percent drop last year in Medicare hospital readmissions. 

On the other hand, many involved in helping healthcare IT catch up with other industries are already sounding the alarm that the transition is headed off a cliff because of the short ramp-up. IT glitches are one of the likeliest reasons for the new law to fail.

"Nothing like this in IT has ever been done to this complexity or scale, and with a timeline that put it behind schedule almost before the ink was dry," Gartner Research Director Rick Howard told Reuters recently.

Consider the complexity of what is being attempted.

         Hospitals, clinics and physicians' offices are working with teams of IT support staff, IT consulting experts, government officials, lawyers, ethicists, insurers and others to create an interoperable "meaningful use" system.

      They must integrate strict patient privacy considerations imposed by HIPAA, including ensuring that only appropriate workers have access to electronic patient records.

·         They must protect the data from continual attempts by hackers to steal information or crash networks. A cyber attack that interrupts healthcare would be a disaster.

      They must work with other healthcare organizations to ensure that records "follow the patient" wherever he or she goes next.

It's no wonder many are pessimistic.

BYOD remains a big security concern 
Another challenge plaguing healthcare professionals is the influx of "Bring Your Own Devices." In a survey of healthcare IT executives recently released by the public-private partnership MeriTalk, more than a third (36 percent) said security information on mobile devices was the top concern at their organization, up from just 6 percent a year ago. Compliance with HIPAA security regulations and CMS security audits was the top worry of 28 percent. Twenty-seven percent worry most about internal security breaches. 

Concerns about healthcare IT security are nothing new. The Washington Post's yearlong investigation of cyber security helped bring the problem to light with its finding that healthcare is among the most vulnerable industries. "I have never seen an industry with more gaping security holes," computer scientist Avi Rubin told the paper. "If our financial industry regarded security the way the healthcare sector does, I would stuff my cash in a mattress under my bed." 

According to HHS, 21 million patient records have been compromised in breaches since 2009. That figure doesn't even capture the problem's scope, since only breaches of 499 or more records are reportable. 

Healthcare organizations can't do this without help
With such a tall task, healthcare must learn from other industries and seek help from firms with IT expertise. This is no different than using specialists to diagnose and treat complex medical problems.

Other industries have learned they cannot afford to do everything themselves. They make conscious, strategic decisions to invest their IT dollars in areas that create a competitive advantage and outsource in areas where a partner is more proficient and cost-effective. By leveraging the expertise and skills of others, they are able to increase their investment in the areas of IT that make a strategic difference in their business.

Healthcare IT capabilities are evolving rapidly but have a long way to go. If "10" is cutting edge, they're more like a "3." They're going to get to "8"rapidly. They're going to adapt. But the healthcare industry will fail if it tries to do this all on its own.

There is tremendous value in data
Healthcare executives are finding that innovation in the era of Big Data is neither easy nor inexpensive, and they're reaching out for expert help. This is driving substantial growth in healthcare IT outsourcing. According to a Research and Markets report, the U.S. healthcare IT outsourcing market is expected to grow by 42.8 percent to $36 billion by 2018.

Other industries have learned that by understanding the data their customers generate, there is a tremendous opportunity to learn about these consumers, understand their needs and develop additional services that can improve customer relations and lower the cost of doing business. This is also true in healthcare. Better, more effective treatment protocols can and will be developed by understanding more about patients. Big data is here to stay.  The question is whether to partner with someone or try to do it indepedently.

The survey indicates providers can reduce IT costs by 9 percent — a staggering $11 billion — over the next three years by adopting IT-as-a-service models.

Other survey findings indicate an industry struggling with the dizzying pace of change in several areas. For example, only 22 percent of respondents believe their infrastructure allows them to innovate. They're also racing to comply with new regulatory requirements, including the protection of patient records.

Healthcare leaders would do well to study how financial services and other highly regulated industries have gained productivity and quality in IT while remaining secure and compliant. 

David Boone is CEO of Paranet Solutions, which provides IT consulting and managed services to a range of businesses, including hospitals, medical practices, surgical centers and hospices. David is also former senior vice president of innovation and retail health services for Methodist Health System in Dallas. He has extensive executive experience with a number of international consumer products companies.  David is a graduate of the Harvard Business School and graduated cum laude from the University of Illinois with a CPA and a degree in finance and accountancy.

More Articles on Healthcare IT:
4 Technology Strategies Required for Population Health Management Success  
CIOs Call on CMS to Extend Meaningful Use Stage 2
The Real Causes of HIPAA Security Breaches: Bad IT System Design, Bad User Behavior, Bad Policies, Bad Operations 

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