U.S. physicians and hospitals are in the digital dark ages when it comes to using the latest mobile devices and Internet services to deliver patient care.
As a result, U.S. hospitals are absorbing an estimated $8.3 billion annual hit in lost productivity and increased patient discharge times, according to a Ponemon Institute survey of 577 health care professionals, released Tuesday to USA TODAY.
Hospitals continue to struggle with security and privacy concerns arising from the mainstreaming of social media at a time when federal rules carry the threat of steep fines for violating patient privacy.
The study, sponsored by tech security firm Imprivata, shows that clinicians waste an average of 46 minutes per day waiting for patient information. The main reasons: reliance on inefficient pagers, lack of Wi-Fi access, deficient e-mail and bans on use of personally owned devices.
That adds up to a productivity loss of $900,000 per year for the typical hospital -- or more than $5.1 billion annually across the health care industry.
"The only industry that uses pagers pervasively is health care," Imprivata CEO Omar Hussain says. "Everyone else has moved to forms of communications that are faster and quicker."
Hospitals fritter away an additional $3.2 billion by continuing to rely on clunky communications systems as part of the patient discharge process. An estimated 37 minutes of the average discharge time of 102 minutes is due to waiting for hospital staff to respond with information necessary for the patient's release.
This lengthy discharge process costs the U.S. hospital industry $3.2 billion annually in lost revenue, the study found.
"If the technology was a little better and less restrictive, that's where the value add would occur," says Larry Ponemon, of the Ponemon Institute. "The goal is to maximize face time with patients. I think that could be achieved by having better technology."
Beaufort Memorial Hospital, a 197-bed facility in Beaufort, S.C., with a staff of 1,300, including 150 physicians, is a case in point.
The hospital recently implemented a secure-texting system that enables doctors and nurses to use text messaging on personally owned iPhones for business communications. The fix was simple: a Web application, downloaded from the Apple Store, that encrypts all messages and stores them in an archive that can be audited.
"The manufacturing and banking industries have been doing these things for a long time," says Edward Ricks, Beaufort's chief information officer. "These technologies aren't new. It's just that the culture for using them to improve workflows hasn't happened in hospital culture."
Beaufort also replaced its aging in-house network, in which doctors had to memorize multiple logons to access records in different departments. Today, the hospital uses a new "virtualized desktop" and "single sign-on" system. Simple computing devices are located in all rooms and at all nurses stations. Each staffer has a single logon to access records in different departments, and can do so from any device.
"We've seen a great improvement in workflows for physicians and nurses," Ricks says. "Folks will do the right thing if you give them the right tools."
The Obama administration has supplied a juicy carrot for others to follow suit. In 2009, President Obama signed into law the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, allocating $19 billion to promote the wider use of electronic medical records.
Under a federal program referred to as "Meaningful Use," doctors can be reimbursed for demonstrating increased adoption and use of electronic medical records.
"Meaningful use is forcing the health industry to adopt new technologies to make more patient information available in real time and improve communications," says Hussain.
Sweeping change is not likely to happen overnight. Jeremy Delinsky, chief technology officer at Athenahealth, which supplies electronic medical record systems, notes there is no infrastructure for physicians to easily share patient information.
Someone from, say, Boston, who falls ill while on vacation in Phoenix, would have a difficult time getting the family physician to send health records to the attending physician in Arizona. This could present enormous problems for patients with chronic conditions or complicated medical histories, he says.
"Health care is incredibly complex," Delinsky observes. "Technology innovators must contend with regulatory restrictions and run interference with insurance companies. These compounding factors make it very difficult to digitally advance the way patients receive care."
sam ward, USA TODAY
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