Sunday, March 27, 2011

"I Like Paper": What's Holding Back Healthcare

So I was in the hospital, accompanying my wife for an emergency appointment that ended with the all-clear being sounded. As we were sitting in the triage room at Beth Israel, my wife's doctor, a woman that I would place at between 35 and 40, was inputting some information into the in-room computer system. She stopped, momentarily stymied by some piece of data the program was prompting her to collect. Turning to us, she said, "I hate this thing. I like paper. Don't you like paper?"

We all had a good laugh at that, but a day later that phrase is still running through my head: "I like paper." That sums up a huge problem with our healthcare system in three simple words. Having spent about thirty minutes watching this particular physician work, and seeing her whip out her Blackberry at one point, I can vouch that she was intelligent and reasonably comfortable with technology. Yet she would prefer paper, and by her own account, avoids the computer system as often as possible.

Now, maybe that bit of data the computer wanted to collect was meaningless in the situation. Maybe, in that instance, collecting the information in a paper chart would have been both quicker and more customized to the issue at hand. But one of the great things about computers is that they enable a level of standardization otherwise impossible. Perhaps my wife's next doctor will need that particular data point as part of making a care decision, or at least want to know it was collected to rule out some possibility he's considering. By computerizing medical records, we make it much more likely the right information is going to be collected and made accessible when needed.

As Walter Russell Mead notes yet again in a recent blog post, one of the areas where we have the most to gain economically is healthcare, where there are still great efficiencies to be found. But that can't happen as long as otherwise talented and intelligent professionals resist tools that, once a part of their daily lives, will enable those improvements. Progress on digitizing medical data continues, but it will be resisted until leaders in the field figure out better ways to have physicians embrace these technologies instead of fighting them.

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