The federal government is about to spend big on health-care IT. Too bad the medical industry has a vested interest in inefficiency.
Technology is once again being touted as a cure-all, this time for what ails the American health-care industry. The Obama administration's $787 billion stimulus plan includes $19 billion for health-care IT spending that provides incentives for doctors and hospitals to adopt electronic health records. Starting in 2011, stimulus funds will provide additional Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements for health-care providers using such systems.
These federal funding programs assume that the critical hurdle to widespread adoption of electronic medical records is cost. Indeed, hospitals surveyed in a study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported cost as the major barrier. Yet compared with other businesses, the health-care industry has been unmoved by the logic of lowering costs to increase profits. The truth is that these folks could have digitized the whole industry ages ago. The technology has been around for a long time: Wall Street began phasing out physical stock certificates over 35 years ago. Even the cash-strapped airline industry has gone ticketless, removing huge labor and overhead costs. These industries started using electronic records because they believed it would save money. The health-care industry simply has not followed suit.
The reason lies neither with cost nor with inadequate technology. Rather, the health-care industry's reluctance to digitize its records is rooted in a desire to keep medicine's lucrative business model hidden. Dangling $19 billion in front of a $2.4 trillion industry is not nearly enough to get it to reveal the financial secrets that electronic health records are likely to uncover--and upon which its huge profits depend. In those medical records lie the ugly truth about the business of medicine: sickness is profitable. The greater the number of treatments, procedures, and hospital stays, the larger the profit. There is little incentive for doctors and hospitals to identify or reduce wasteful spending in medicine.