I've heard so many people say that the health care industry is "broken" that I'm beginning to believe it myself.

When President Obama included $19 billion in computerized medical record funding in the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, he did so with the intention of helping providers reduce costs and improve quality of care. We know what improving the quality of care does for health insurers, who also have a vested interest in having their providers embrace the technologies that will enable them to improve communications and business transactions with all stakeholders.

Yet the reality, according to experts at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, is that technology could increase health care costs without markedly improving quality. In fact, says Wharton, the focus tends to be on technology because the "real" problems are so hard to solve, no one wants to touch them politically.

Among the "real" problems, notes Wharton, are what it calls a "primitive" infrastructure for delivering health care in this country. "The health care industry is too fragmented with too many motivations preventing real integration," says Richard Neill, residency director and vice chair at the University of Pennsylvania's Department of Family Medicine and Community Health. "IT is necessary, but it will not fix what's in place. Technology can accelerate the bad systems and processes, and you can make the same mistakes 100 times faster."

SO WHAT'S THE POINT?

Well, for starters, patient care, and the (big) business around delivering it, can't function without technology. The United States spent $2.4 trillion on health care in 2008, reports the World Health Organization, which predicts those costs will increase at twice the rate of inflation by 2016. The typical American family of four will spend $16,771 on health care this year, up 7.4% from the 2008 figure of $15,609, according to Seattle-based consultancy Milliman.

Not everyone believes that health care technology lacks merit. Kevin Volpp, professor of medicine and health care management at Wharton, argues that it's vital for the health care industry to upgrade IT, pointing to its potential to allow doctors and hospitals to share critical patient records and give patients the ability to monitor their health and prevent errors.

Whether the "broken" health care system as we know it is affected by a yet-to-be decided set of health care reforms remains to be seen. But, in looking at the layers of complexity surrounding the deeply tiered health care industry, one thing appears simple: The patient forking out $16,000 per year will have the last word on whether health care IT is a panacea for the system's ills.

(c) 2009 Insurance Networking News and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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