CEO’s predictions about health IT offers some guidance for reporters

Photo: Army Medicine via Flickr

Photo: Army Medicine via Flickr

Can technology save us? It’s among several questions on a lot of people’s minds these days. Can technology save us from rising health costs? Can technology save Medicare by reducing costs to the program? Can technology help our veterans gain better access to care? Can technology help people take control of their health decisions?

At the same time, criticism of technology has grown in the aftermath of a presidential election that shocked many. There’s criticism about the proliferation of fake news on Facebook and other social media. And fears about Russia meddling in the election and potential hacking of voting systems all have put a focus on technology.

Amid this uncertainty, I attended a meeting of the American Medical Group Association in San Francisco last month and heard a rousing defense of technology from one of the country’s leading physicians. Robert Pearl, M.D., executive director and CEO of the Permanente Medical Group, gave an hour-long keynote address using no notes and no slides.

Pearl, who leads the medical group arm of Oakland, Calif.-based Kaiser Permanente, made the case that technology will be one of four pillars of health care in the 21st century. (The other three are physician leadership; integration of health care organizations and prepayment, a replacement for fee-for-service).

I think Pearl’s comments about technology are useful for reporters looking at the role technology will play in our health system moving forward.

“I believe very strongly it (technology) will be the solution,” Pearl told 600 AMGA members, most of them physicians. He urged them to embrace three technologies in particular:

  1. Video: Telehealth “eliminates distance and time,” Pearl said, and allows for faster diagnosis and treatment, better access to care and improved customer service.
  2. Predictive data analytics: These are software programs that use an algorithm to predict risk among patients (such as risk for sepsis, central line infections and future emergency department visits). Hospitals around the country are implementing predictive analytic software at a quick pace. They have the potential to make care more efficient and tailored to patients and improve outcomes, Pearl said.
  3. EHRs as a communication tool: Today, EHRs are primarily a repository of patient data that has yet to be sufficiently harnessed. Pearl predicted that EHRs would become a valuable tool for early diagnosis of disease and to engage in better preventative care. The data in an EHR that is wide-reaching because it includes demographics, geography, community, family history and ethnicity. If providers use this data wisely, they can calculate the risk of certain diseases, and run tests on patients who are high-risk to improve early detection, Pearl said.

“The question we should ask about technology to evaluate its use is “what problem is it trying to solve?” Pearl said. That’s a good guideline for journalists as well. Here are some questions to ask in your reporting:

  • How big is the problem in the first place?
  • What problem is this technology trying to solve?
  • How will it solve it?

One hot tech sector that Pearl predicted would fizzle is wearables. He argued that wearables offer no tangible solution to health care’s problems today. He called wearables “the inline skates of 25 years ago.”

“Wearables solve a very important problem,” Pearl joked. “It’s called Christmas and Hanukkah.”

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