Technology’s medicine for health sector ills


8 Dec 2003

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It is a well-established fact that investment in IT is often at the bottom of the heap in the medical world. Ironically, there is a growing body of professionals that believe that investment in IT is the solution to the financial malaise that is the bane of medical administrations the world over. In Ireland, hardly a week goes by without headlines screaming out how the healthcare system is groaning under the pressure of lack of facilities and an acute money shortage whilst new hospital wards sit idle.

While the health boards struggle with a growing mountain of bureaucracy, a growing army of citizens is gathering medical knowledge on the internet through such sites as www.vhihealthe.com and www.irishhealth.ie, setting the stage for an era of greater electronic health management.

Various medical health experts believe that the solution to the administration problems that stalk the Irish health sector are tantalisingly close.

“It’s better to make new mistakes rather than old ones,” says Brian Sweeney, chairman of Siemens in Ireland, referring to the current problems financial and administrative problems impacting the health sector in Ireland. Technology giants, ranging from Oracle to IBM and Siemens, have decided to tackle the problem head on and are focused on developing systems and solutions that enable greater health record systems that give the patients themselves a more active role in offsetting administrative nightmares. This is done through a form of self-service that allows patients to create their own accounts over the internet and hospitals to create beds that would pay for themselves.

It is believed that at present the 10 different Irish health boards are working off nine different IT systems. It is also understood that the holy grail of a new health service for Ireland in the shape of a single patient identifier (SPI) is tied up in government bureaucracy. The promise of the SPI is that an individual’s unique health records would be instantly accessible anywhere at any time, regardless of whether it’s a hospital, agency or primary healthcare facility. Someone involved in a car accident in a different part of the country to where they live, for example, would be admitted to a hospital that could instantly access information that might save their life. It is a first step in creating an electronic health record that offers a single and comprehensive view of a patient that can be accessed from multiple locations. As one observer recently commented: “The reality is that health services are extraordinarily information intensive. You go to a doctor and then a consultant and they ask precisely the same questions. It would save everybody a lot of time and money if the questions were asked once and the information was shared.”

Siemens believes the answer lies in having electronic patient records and medical images that can be retrieved at the bedside. According to Christian Leffler, an international expert in healthcare communications at Siemens, provision of a converged communications infrastructure, accessible by patients and staff, can improve healthcare, enhance patient experience, reduce clinical error and improve financial performance.

The company, about one tenth of whose annual €90bn revenues come from the medical sector, recently unveiled its HiMed healthcare technology that gives faster access to electronic patient records at a hospital information systems conference in Dublin. A bedside multimedia console, HiMed is a communications system that improves the efficiency of internal and external procedures in hospital by connecting to the hospital’s back-end IT management system and providing doctors with electronic patient records. All a doctor needs to do is swipe in a smart card and enter a PIN number to access an individual’s latest medical notes.

However, as well as revolutionising records management, the HiMed system also works as a self-funding system that allows hospitals to get a return on investment by delivering value-added services, ranging from internet access to e-commerce and television. All fee-based services, such as telephone calls and web access can be charged to a patient’s smart card and create a source of revenue that will pay back the investment over a year and a half and/or contribute to defraying hospital operational costs. As well as this, children staying at a hospital can plug in their Xbox or PlayStation 2 consoles into the HiMed system.

Sweeney indicated that a number of prominent Irish hospitals had begun trialling the HiMed system and said it was part of a new wave of technology that would eventually become widespread in Irish hospitals. “Growing pressure on funding is forcing all healthcare service providers to optimise costs that explains their growing interest in ICT systems,” he says. “Large hospitals are increasingly acquiring operations-oriented program or systems to collect, store and retrieve patient data.”

By John Kennedy

Pictured (l-r): Christian Leffler, international expert in healthcare communications, Siemens and Brian Sweeney, chairman of Siemens Ireland