The Truven Health Blog

The latest healthcare topics from a trusted, proven, and unbiased source.

 
By Truven Staff

Using Data to Improve Healthcare

Mike Taylor imageAs other have pointed out repeatedly, our healthcare system is badly broken. In fact, we don’t have a healthcare system in this country – it’s a series of independent businesses, often competing with each other in the goal of making more profit. The three constituencies in the healthcare business are the customers (patients), the providers (doctors and hospitals), and the payers (health plans, employers and the government). These three groups all have perfectly misaligned incentives. Patients want care at minimal cost, providers make more money by providing more care (whether it is needed or not), and payers want to minimize payments. The payment mechanism drives more care at higher cost, and the result is the U.S. pays 18% of its GDP for healthcare – more than twice as much as any other country on the planet.

How does smarter use of data help this picture? In my opinion, more intelligent use of data is an important part of the answer. Data is a powerful tool to help physicians make better decisions. In the hospital setting, physicians should have access to ALL of a patient’s medical record, not just information gathered during a single hospital stay. In most Emergency Departments, doctors often don’t have unfettered access to outpatient medical records that may provide important clues to making correct diagnoses. Tests are needlessly repeated, incorrect medications are given and diagnostic errors are made all too often.  Electronic medical records (EMRs) should be helping this problem, but unfortunately most EMRs are simply digitized versions of the old paper record. We need EMRs to be longitudinal electronic health records, aggregating all of a person’s health information into a single record to be used by all providers of care. A unified health record then needs analytic tools to be able to use the comprehensive record to improve care, provide guidelines for evidence-based medical care, prevent incorrect medication use, stop dosing errors, and have prompts in the analytic tool to stop repeat tests and x-rays- in sum, improve the care.

A unified, single, health record for a patient would be a great tool to help improve care, but in the U.S., we have more fundamental problems than a lack of accessible data. In today’s residency training programs, physicians should be taught how to use the data and EMRs to make better decisions. An evaluation of a patient should always start with the physician sitting with the patient, taking a probing history by knowing what questions to ask, and how to elicit symptoms. This information is supplemented by knowing how to properly examine a patient and understand how to put all the information together to formulate a diagnosis. We cannot rely on an EMR or CT scans to do this job – it must start with a thorough history and a proper physical. One of the most impactful lessons I was taught in residency was that if I finished taking a patient’s medical history and yet still didn’t have a series of probable diagnoses to consider, I needed to take more history. Unfortunately, in today’s hospitals, finding a diagnosis is all too often done by ordering more testing, and in a fee-for-service payment environment, more testing means more revenue. More procedures mean more revenue. Hospitals and physicians should be paid for providing a higher level of quality, not by volume. 

I am a strong advocate of using medical data and providing better analytic tools to help physicians and patients, but tools are just tools. Physicians and other caregivers need these tools to improve care, but providers of care also need to listen to patients, think critically in making diagnostic assessments, care passionately about improving care, and use sound judgment at all times. They cannot be effective in a fee-for-service world. Providers do need to improve the care they provide, but the U.S. needs a sound healthcare strategy to solve our issues. Technology is part of that solution.

Michael L. Taylor, MD, FACP
Chief Medical Officer
3552

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