Curing the patient

5 Mar 2008

Healthcare spending in the 30 member countries of the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is now reckoned to be outstripping economic growth by a ratio of seven to one. This frightening statistic underscores the fact that for many of the developed nations it is becoming impossible for health service funding to keep pace with growing demands.

So why has this situation occurred and what can be done? The reason healthcare provision has shot up the agenda of so many governments is that changing demographics are creating a situation where the number of retired people is gradually outweighing the number of economically active workers in the population.

At the same time, as the range of treatable diseases continues to rise, the cost of treating patients over their extended lifetime is increasing dramatically. Healthcare today is a highly complex business and, as costs accelerate, governments are coming under immense pressure to improve quality and access to care.

In the case of Ireland, the rising cost of healthcare is also a result of the population growth stemming from our economic success. This increased demand for services has placed incredible pressure on our health service, which is currently attempting to reform many fundamental issues arising from the historic inefficiencies of the old health board structure.

Key to tackling this challenge is finding ways to harness technology to improve value for money as well as improving clinical outcomes. IT has the potential to improve the quality of care, and help contain or even reverse spiralling costs. Investment in healthcare IT is therefore expected to grow strongly over the coming years. Indeed without such investment we are certain to have more and more service delivery problems and failures than we have already encountered.

Although today’s health system is more technologically sophisticated than at any other time in history, rising public expectations mean it also attracts more criticism than ever before. As a result there is a need to rethink the way in which services are delivered.

The services offered by the many bodies that make up the healthcare sector, such as the GP, pharmacist, optician, dentist and laboratory, need to be provided in an integrated way, rather than in the fragmented manner of yesteryear.

Cohesive care

By linking health services through an electronic patient record system (EPR), it is possible to bring together the many elements of the healthcare system in a cohesive fashion. A comprehensive picture of the patient’s care history becomes instantly available at the point of care, slashing administrative overheads, improving quality by reducing the risk of inappropriate treatments and creating the possibility for more direct involvement of patients in determining and administering their own care.

There is no room in a modern healthcare service for old paper-based systems that struggle to support the critical decision systems needed to make timely and effective interventions in the treatment of patients.

For example, a single online system for prescribing pharmaceuticals would eliminate inefficient paper-based processes and significantly improve convenience for doctors, pharmacists and patients as well as reduce the rate of serious medication errors that cause patient harm.

Using web interfaces already make it possible for clinicians and patients to interact remotely, allowing for more efficient patient monitoring. With the growing trend towards the home treatment of many patients with long-term illnesses, there is a great opportunity to improve the quality of life for many patients, while at the same time freeing up some of the scarce bed capacity for the treatment of more acute patients.

Our cancer treatment specialists are already using technology to obtain second opinions on patients’ conditions from overseas experts. Harnessing the power of information networks will help deliver state-of-the-art cancer treatment services for every citizen that requires them.

By ensuring information flows across the entire organisation, it will be possible to mitigate inefficiency, reduce the scope for error in the current system and at the same time achieve greater economies of scale.

The adoption of technology is increasingly recognised as critical in the drive for increased patient safety, supply chain efficiency and the traceability of all medical devices and medication.

However, any technology investment will only be as effective as the wider organisational reform it facilitates. The HSE needs not only the financial support for IT investment from Government but also the backing of all the staff in our health service to implement process changes to realise the potential of such technologies.

Without a major advance in the effective use of IT today, health services will find it increasingly difficult to provide the standard of healthcare their patients expect and deserve.

GS1 Ireland’s standards for information transfer between and within healthcare organisations will provide a key building block for tomorrow’s more efficient health service.

By Jim Bracken