We often think of the government as behind the times in fostering the adoption of new technologies. But healthcare provides a counter-example where the federal government is driving positive change. The government’s ability to drive positive change stems from its power as the largest health insurance company, paying for Medicare and Medicaid. Much as a major retailer like Walmart can force suppliers to comply with its supply chain processes and technologies, the government is now using its power to compel healthcare providers who receive reimbursements to upgrade their practices and technologies.
Electronic medical records (EMRs) have long been recognized as one of the most fundamental technologies in improving healthcare economics, yet their adoption has been slow because of lack of standards and the reluctance of private physicians to purchase them. Under the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act of 2009, the government has created a program of grants for any physician or hospital that implements an EMR adhering to a set of so-called “meaningful use” standards designed to ensure that these technologies will actually be used to effect a significant impact on cost and quality of care. In addition, the government has allocated funds for creating regional extension programs that provide technical assistance and share best practices to accelerate health care providers’ effective use of EMRs. (Think extension agents in the Agriculture Department’s highly-successful program that modernized farming in the 20th century.) In addition, the government is funding the establishment of regional health information exchanges connecting health care providers.
Another example of the government fostering the adoption of new technology comes from a Medicare rule requiring pharmacists to conduct an annual comprehensive medication therapy management (MTM) review and provide personal counseling to any patent over 65 years old who takes multiple prescription drugs. The purpose of the MTM review is to ensure that a patient’s set of drugs aren’t duplicative or potentially harmful in their interactions. Complying with this rule will require that pharmacists get equipped with systems that can automatically screen thousands of patient records against drug databases to identify potential problematic situations.
These are just two examples from among many of the government taking a positive, proactive approach toward technology to improve healthcare and lower costs. It’s too early to know whether these moves will result in the desired adoption of new technologies and, more importantly, whether they will ultimately improve healthcare economics. But some of the early results are promising: In its initial month, more than 21,000 healthcare providers initiated registration for the EMR incentive program.