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Will medical informatics lead the way?

The biggest questions facing our state—and our planet—need answers.

Find out how Golden Gate University students are finding new ways to improve healthcare in the US.

The US is a world leader in converting new ideas into workable commercial technologies. However, it spends twice as much on healthcare as other developed nations, and is ranked 37th in quality. Will the US be able to leverage its strength in innovation to decrease costs and improve quality of care?

According to professor of economics, Tyler Cowen, in a recent New York Times Opinion Editorial, the “American health care system, high expenditures and all, is driving innovation for the entire world”.

However, Cowen also shares that the US spends more of its gross domestic product on healthcare than any nation in the world, but that we do not live longer than Western Europeans or Japanese.

According to Cowen, US and foreign-born scientists that work in the US have received 15 Nobel Prizes in medicine. And in the last 25 years, US companies and hospitals are responsible for the development of some of the most important medical innovations the world has ever seen.

“Even when initial research is done overseas,” says Cowen, “the American system leads in converting new ideas into workable commercial technologies.”

Do these medical IT achievements translate into better healthcare for all?

Today, according to the latest Census Bureau numbers, more than 50 million Americans are uninsured.

The Obama Administration has attempted to improve this situation with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), which requires nearly all to have insurance by 2014. While some fear these costs will shift toward the patient, the White House projects that PPACA will lead to reform and cost efficiency, citing advances in healthcare IT as one of they key ways of both improving the quality of care and reducing costs and redundancy. “There is a huge organizational paradigm shift occurring right now in the healthcare industry, and it’s physicians who are embracing the advances at breakneck speed,” says Adjunct GGU Professor Steve Nitenson, senior technology manager, Experis IT. “The demand for skills to aid in the migration to digitized health records and the management of those systems is creating an unprecedented boon for the sector.” Will this “boon” lead to increased costs, or increased innovation that improves efficiencies? “Clinical decision support based on data analytics in healthcare is a new frontier,” says Adjunct GGU Professor Joerg Schwarz, Director of Global eHealth Business Strategy & Partner Development, GE Healthcare’s eHealth Solutions. “While everybody is worried that healthcare might become unaffordable in the near future, IT and data analytics hold the key to solving this problem; how could you not be excited?”

How is healthcare IT the magic bullet?

“According to research, what causes the healthcare cost to be rocketing sky high is the prevalence of the chronic diseases that have placed an enormous pressure on the healthcare system,” says Reza Tony Abasaltian, a master of science in IT management in healthcare information systems GGU student studying for a career in healthcare IT.

“Healthcare IT can be used to effectively manage patients with chronic diseases and also prevent others from acquiring it,” continues Abasaltian. “The technology used to isolate and detect these problems as well as provide further insight for providers to treat a patient (via shared resources) more effectively would in the long run reduce the costs associated with it. It’s about containment and preventive medicine.”

What about the downsides?

Bart Pestarino (MS 09) is an independent market research contractor who works closely with IT companies that provide software to healthcare organizations. While Pestarino (along with many others) believes that doctors equipped with iPads, iPhones and netbooks who can access information about their patients from any location at any time is the future of medicine, he is also realistic about the challenges posed by electronic medical records. “The challenge is how are you going to make it so that doctors who are not employed by the hospital can accomplish what they need to do and make sure that it is secure? What do you do if you have a lost or stolen machine? How do you prevent someone from accessing any of this and how do you electronically shred data and restore any relevant information?”

Pros and cons aside, there’s no question that technology is revolutionizing the healthcare industry, and GGU is preparing students for success with faculty like John Morales (MS 10), senior trainer, business intelligence training and communication, actuarial and analytics, Blue Cross of California. He teaches a sequence of courses that use real-world patient data to provide students the opportunity to dissect and analyze data in order to develop efficient solutions and effective practices for healthcare payers and providers.

A database, provided by the California Department of Health to GGU, contains over 63 million real health care records (scrubbed for anonymity of patients) that GGU students can dissect and analyze during their course of study. “We now have access to medical records for everyone who's visited a California hospital from 2006 to 2009," explains Morales.

“Many hospitals in California have 50% readmission rates, meaning, they don’t get it right the first time,” he continues. “GGU students examine these rates and variables associated to deduce what factors are resulting in inefficient care, and what changes should be made to improve patient service and organizational efficiency.”

Michael Lane, a student of Morales, used the database to examine trends to find ways to improve the US healthcare system and bend the healthcare cost curve.

"Regardless of what happens with PPACA, with the use of technology we will deliver higher quality care in a more efficient manner, theoretically eliminating the over, under and misuse of healthcare services,” Lane says. "The many wrongs will be righted."

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