Topic Overview

Health information technology holds the promise to give individuals more control over their own health, help physicians make more informed care decisions and improve the overall health of populations. Digital technology is rapidly transforming the health sector. While opinions vary on whether it is improving care or creating more headaches for providers and patients, what's sure is that the digitization of the health sector is accelerating. Reporters on the health beat should understand health IT because it is being woven into the provider and patient experience.

When we think about health IT, we might think about electronic medical records, telemedicine or electronic prescribing. Health IT is all those things, but it is so much more. It is health apps on smartphones, patient portals, online wellness programs offered by employers and barcode scanners that track medical supplies and devices. Look at the world around you and the hospitals, clinics and insurers on your beat and you will see health IT in action.

Words like “informatics,” “big data,” and “meaningful use” can make anyone's eyes glaze over. So how to approach health IT without making it boring, geeky or indecipherable? And what questions should reporters ask health care providers and payers about the technology they are implementing?

It's easy to get swept up into the latest and greatest. Reporters should keep in mind three questions when covering health IT.

First: How will this help patients? By going back to the patient, or consumer of health care, all the gee-wiz latest and greatest can be put into context. Is this technology going to make our lives better? Or does it make us more disconnected and removed from our providers and the information we need to make important decisions about our health? There are 2 billion smartphones in use across the planet, but recent studies suggest health apps aren't necessarily making us healthier.

Second: Will the technology help providers do their jobs? The number one patient safety concern for 2016 is health IT configurations that don't support health organizational workflow, according to the annual list from the highly regarded ECRI. A problem that sometimes develops is that new health IT system is added to a facility and it isn't incorporated into daily workflow. Instead, it's ignored or people develop workarounds. “When health IT configuration and workflow clash, communication suffers," writes the ECRI. This can lead to medication errors and delays in care.

Third: Will the technology reduce costs? This is a big one. Providers and insurers are spending billions to implement new technology but will it lead to lower costs in our health system, will it add costs or will it shift costs around? The jury is still out on this one but as the costs of health IT continue to drop (think about your smartphone) and adoption takes hold, the idea is that it will ultimately reduce costs of care. It could do this by improving outcomes, involving patients in care decisions and creating more transparency around the entire heath sector.

The three core questions on health IT – will it improve health; will it help providers do their jobs better; and will it reduce costs – are the three questions reporters ask all the time about our health system as a whole. By seeing health IT as integral to the most profound questions about our health system, reporters can dig deep into their beat to reveal crucial information for their readers.