The Role of Health Care IT in the Future

Hands on an ipod that says Medical Record.

In February 2009, President Obama passed the Health Information Technology for Economic Clinical Health (HITECH) Act as part of the economic stimulus bill known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Since then, more and more health care providers are abandoning the old ways of paper and filing and entering the digital age.

Following the HITECH Act, the Cures Act was signed in 2016 promoting the acceleration of research to prevent and cure serious illnesses, accelerating drug and medical device development as well as address various other issues such as the opioid abuse crisis and mental health service delivery. Specifically in relation to health care IT, the Cures Act promotes greater interoperability through the adoption of electronic health records (EHRs) with the goal of improving the quality of patient care.

This integration of technology and medicine should come as no surprise, though. Technology has come a long way in recent years. The size of devices may be shrinking exponentially but the amount of data being stored has grown even more so. We’re not storing all this information on paper using filing systems and fax machines anymore; instead we're turning more and more to digital means.

Technology is no longer being regarded as a passing fad; the use of technology is now ingrained in our society. So, it is no surprise that the health care industry relies on it as well. The introduction and integration of technology in the health care industry is responsible, at least in part, for the growth we’ve seen in the industry over the last two decades. IT, or information technology, is no different.

The Impact of Health Care IT

When we think of IT, we often picture dark server rooms and isolated employees instead of the technology itself. Health information technology often refers to the many tools that are being utilized by those within the health care industry: clinicians, nurses, patients, administrators, insurance companies, etc.

While the migration into the world of technology may have been a direct result of President Obama's HITECH Act and Cures Act, it would have happened naturally soon enough. There is a patient-driven demand for clearer, and more readily accessible information. The more normalized the use of technology and instantaneous information is in society, the more people will expect it in their everyday lives. Patients expect it, and so providers must supply it.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t a necessary change, though. It is not difficult to see the immeasurable impact this migration has had. There are short-term and long-term improvements to patient care, diagnostics and predictive models. These improvements correlate with the introduction and integration of technology and health care data management.

The use of certain tools means having access to all of the information, not just bits and pieces stored separately by different departments or offices. Such immediate access leads to better, faster diagnostics and improved patient outcomes. We also see fewer errors in prescribing and dosing of medications.

What Exactly Is Health Care IT?

In short, it is health information technology. It is the technological tools that are used by health care professionals, insurance companies and government organizations to collect, store, share and analyze health data collected through various means.

These tools include:

  • Electronic Health Records (EHRs)
  • Cloud Storage
  • Personal Health Records (PHRs)
  • Electronic Prescription Services (E-prescribing)
  • Patient Portals
  • Health-Related Smart Phone Apps and more

Health Data Management Through Digital Records

No longer are we tied to paper records kept in bulky filing cabinets or dusty back rooms. Instead there are digital records of patient history compiled electronically into one secure, central hub that can be accessed by all of the necessary participants. Electronic Health Records, or EHRs, provide patient documentation in a digital format.

This collection of data is stored in a centralized location, which makes the information available whenever and wherever it is needed. The implementation and advances of systems like EHRs have significantly impacted patient care. The availability of all of the necessary data has led to faster and more accurate diagnoses, safer prescribing and improved patient outcomes.

Health data management has had an even deeper impact on the health care industry. With the management of this data now streamlined, the use of predictive modeling is a possibility. We are able to take preventive measures and predict outcomes better thanks to this information.

Big Data and the Use of Cloud Storage in Health Care

We hear the phrase “big data” often in today’s world. But, what exactly does it mean? Big data quite literally means BIG data - it’s the enormous volume of data being stored. These data sets are so large that traditional processing software can’t handle them.

Originally, "Big Data" was associated with four concepts: volume, velocity, veracity and variety. In order to qualify as big data, the incoming information had to be of a very large volume, consist of multiple file types (think JPG, PDF, Doc) and be gathered at an incredible speed (like real-time). With the introduction of EHRs and the increasing use of technologies in the health care industry, an infinite amount of data is being collected at an increasing speed.

Cloud storage is a necessity when dealing with “Big Data.” This too can seem like an elusive concept, but it is simpler than it seems. Cloud storage is simply web-based storage that is held on multiple servers and is typically managed by a hosting company.

Cloud storage is built to be secure and, because of the nature of electronic storage, it is low cost. This secure, cost-effective solution allows for more efficient and more easily accessible information.

The information stored in these servers can be accessed instantaneously and is used to improve patient care, simplify medical research, feed predictive models, identify trends among areas and populations and allow for preventive solutions to be applied. Without “Big Data” and cloud storage, tools like EHRs wouldn’t be possible.

Health Care Anywhere with Telehealth Services

We are no longer confined by geography thanks to the internet and electronic communications. Information can be accessed anywhere, any time and people can be reached from all corners of the world. What does this mean for patients? They can access specialists anywhere in the world through the use of telehealth services.

Virtual Appointments

Instead of going to the doctor’s office and meeting in-person, we now have video conferencing technology to allow for virtual appointments. This not only opens up access to specialists and doctors all over the world, it can allow access to patients who may not have had it before.

Consider the current pandemic. With COVID-19, we are more confined to our own worlds than ever before. But with proper technology, we are not limited in our access to the health care professionals we still need. With virtual appointments, care can be delivered safely.

In a situation such as the one we find ourselves in now, virtual appointments can mean medical care without risking your health. When not in the midst of a global pandemic, it can help:

  • Homebound patients and patients with limited mobility
  • Patients without access to transportation
  • Patients in rural and remote areas
  • Patients in need of specialists outside of their geographic area

Patient Portals & Personal Health Records

Before the migration into the digital age, patients (and their doctors) were often limited in the knowledge that they had access to. The growth of health care IT and the introduction of more and more tools has allowed for more readily available information. Patient portals provide secure communication between provider and patient about private medical information. Patients can set appointments, request prescription refills, view test results and more without having to go in and see their doctor.

Similar to EHRs, Personal Health Records (PHRs) are an electronic medical file. Unlike EHRs, though, PHRs are controlled by the patient. They can update their medications, their doctor’s information, their symptoms, allergies and diagnoses. Where EHRs allow providers to access information whenever and wherever they need it, PHRs provide that for the patient.

Remote Monitoring

Virtual appointments allow for the actual appointment to take place without ever setting foot in a medical facility. But, what about the follow-up? Oftentimes when dealing with elderly patients and those with chronic conditions, significant monitoring and follow-up is crucial. Remote monitoring uses devices or mobile app technology to track this information and transmit it back to providers.

With an aging population and the rise of chronic conditions, telehealth services are more relevant than ever.

Mobile App Technologies for Health Care on the Go

There is an app for almost anything these days. Every day a new mobile app is introduced and downloaded hundreds, thousands, even millions of times. The use of apps in health care is on the rise—and for good reason. Mobile applications can increase patient participation as well as caretaker efficiency.

For physicians and nurses, the use of these apps can mean less time on paperwork and more time with patients. It also means improved patient care. Providers are never far from the information they need with the use of mobile devices like cell phones and tablets. With drug information readily available, safer prescribing and better dosages are applied. Doctors can even send prescriptions directly to the pharmacies to cut out unnecessary time for patients.

For patients, apps can equal better overall health. An overwhelming number of health and fitness apps exist today. Food intake and fitness can be tracked. Chronic conditions can be monitored with ease. Reminders can be set for medications and doctor appointments.

People are rarely far from their mobile devices so the use of mobile apps is ingenious. Mobile apps simplify what can often be viewed as complicated and overwhelming. Better self-care leads to better outcomes.

Room for Growth in Health Care IT

As technology progresses, so too will the demand for tech-based communications. The industry faces continued pressure to lower health care costs and address a growing demand for technological integration. Health care IT isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it is a growing field in the health care industry. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is predicting growth for medical and health services managers at a rate much faster than average through 2028.

Health care IT is so much more than just the collection of data. That data—and the technologies that house it—needs to be analyzed, updated and improved. And, with so few people properly trained for this particular field, it leaves plenty of opportunity … with the right education … to enter this industry.

The University of Pittsburgh provides an Online Master of Science in Health Informatics for those looking to begin or advance a career in health care IT. The MSHI program’s world-class faculty delivers knowledge and skills with immediate real-world application. With the online format, you can access the program anywhere there is internet.

Learn from the best no matter where you are with Pitt’s Online MSHI program.

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