Monday, February 9, 2009

Mr. President, Medical Computer Systems Aren't that Simple

"When everybody has computers, communication will be efficient, and medical costs will come down." This is what medical experts say.

Yah. Just about everybody in medicine already has a computer. It just can't communicate with all the other computer systems. Remember the 9/11 Commission report about New York's twin towers? Firemen's radios weren't on the same wavelength as the police, and City Hall had still a different system. Communication was chaos.

Recently a friend told me that because the U of Washington medical center in Seattle designed it's own computer system, our local Kootenai Medical Center can't communicate with it directly, but had to send his MRI report by a disc delivered by the postal service. His treatment was delayed by three weeks.

Doctor groups, insurance carriers, and government offices are in the same situation. Each listened to a different salesman, whose product was always "the best", and they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars buying, installing, training in the use of, and maintaining, their system, only to find out that the hospital or the next office down the road had a different system. They aren't about to pay out that amount of money all over again. "Let the other guy match up with me" is the common attitude.

Never mind that there are hackers out there in cyberspace that can break into any system. Only last month the news was full of someone who had accessed the social security numbers of millions.

Never mind that there are now double the number of clerks in every doctor's office, to transcribe the dictation for the records, and each clerk has to be paid. Never mind that the average patient's medical record has ballooned to ten times the number of pages it used to be before the computer age - computers can print it all out in a few seconds, but how long does it take to read through all those pages to find the information you are looking for?

Never mind that computers can crash, or records disappear into cyberspace, if there is no hard copy backup.

And never mind that doctors and nurses still make medication errors even with everything computerized. The data is only as reliable as the typist and the reader.

Computers are a necessary advance in medical information transfer, but so far they are not money savers. And mis-information can still spread—even more easily spread—by computer.