As it is in many fields, technology is making a huge impact on healthcare—but in what ways, and how does it help patients? The benefits may be undeniable, but there are major implications that the industry is grappling with as more and more technology is incorporated into the healthcare process at administrative and clinical levels.
On the clinical side, technology is enabling more patient engagement. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., is currently developing an app for migraine sufferers, says Ryan Johnson, an operations administrator at Mayo and a faculty member in the Master of Arts in Health and Human Services Administration program at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. Users answer four questions in the app every morning, allowing the healthcare team to analyze which medications are working and to identify potential migraine triggers. “Previously, that might have involved multiple phone calls or visits, or the healthcare team would look at the information in three months,” Johnson notes. Information is collected and acted upon much more quickly, to patients’ benefit.
Wearable technology is another area of development. Researchers are developing biomarker sensors that can capture readings for specific disease groups. Healthcare professionals will be able to monitor and track the vital signs of patients with serious conditions, such as diabetes or heart disease. Using radio-frequency identification (RFID) tracking to monitor medication use and compliance is another area of inquiry and investigation. Tools similar to the Fitbit can track exercise and physical activity levels. Such information-collecting technology brings up issues of ethics and privacy, which will have to be considered as it becomes more common. “Clearly a lot of patients would be sensitive to all of their habits being monitored and recorded,” Johnson says.
The Impact of Electronic Health Records
Another significant area where technology is changing the face of healthcare is in the transition from paper-based records to electronic health records (EHRs). The federal government has set aside billions of dollars for a program that offers financial incentives to healthcare providers that adopt EHR systems, with the ultimate goal of improving care through the sharing and analysis of healthcare data. This will enhance the ability of healthcare professionals and researchers to analyze health trends, disease patterns, and effective treatments on a much larger scale—and it will also help cut costs by preventing redundant tests and treatments. The effort has been largely successful: in 2015, more than 90 percent of hospitals of all types had implemented certified EHR technology.1
However, implementing and using EHRs has exposed many organizational issues and concerns. “Organizations were at such different levels of technological maturity,” says Johnson, who points out that Mayo Clinic had its own electronic environment for 20 years before the federal initiative. A rural hospital or small doctor’s office might rely far less on technology and electronic recordkeeping.
Defining standards and figuring out how to ensure all systems can communicate with each other is another major topic. “That is a big thing for the future if we’re going to make efficient use of all the data,” Johnson says. “How do you work with the million different data points that need to be standard going forward? There’s going to be a really intense, dedicated focus on that in the coming years.”
Adapting to New Financial Realities
All this technology and change requires a significant financial investment. Information security “is the fastest growing expenditure and the top priority for nearly every healthcare organization over the last couple of years,” says Johnson. “Healthcare has such sensitive information, it really has amplified the need for investing heavily.”
Ongoing maintenance and upgrades are another area of investment—in the billions for a large organization, according to Johnson. “EHRs need to show improved efficiencies that are going to drive costs down—eventually that will show a ROI,” he says. At the same time, reimbursement is declining and an aging population is going into government programs like Medicare, so it’s more difficult to pass costs onto patients, as in the past. “It’s really starting to pinch organizations from a margin perspective,” says Johnson.
To respond to this new financial reality, organizations have to re-prioritize. “You’ll see less investment in the development of brick-and-mortar facilities and more of a push toward telemedicine and programs that keep patients out of the hospital,” he says.
As healthcare turns to a focus on disease prevention and using technology-enhanced data to both prevent and treat illness, the implications of the transformation are potentially life-changing. “We are moving past a traditional work station into mobile technology,” Johnson says. “The ability to stay engaged with patients with all types of diseases is really the next frontier.”