Even with the all-too- depressing illustrations of political paralysis we've seen recently, government can still act to improve our lives. A good case in point: The U.S. health sector is rapidly digitizing, and federal legislation from early 2009, passed well before the health-care reform act, is an important reason why.
Just five years ago, only 12 percent of doctors and 11 percent of hospitals had comprehensive information- technology systems in place. With no digital records to measure patient progress and guide doctors on best practices, it's not surprising that cost and quality of care have varied wildly, not only across the U.S. but even within a single hospital.
The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, a little-noticed component of the 2009 economic-stimulus bill, is helping to change all that. As a result, over the next five years we will experience a substantial expansion in health IT. That digital revolution, in turn, is central to improving value in health care.
Consider the experience of Partners HealthCare System Inc., an early adopter of health IT at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. In 2006, more than two-thirds of its doctors used electronic health records and, by 2009, all of them did. The system includes integrated clinical-decision support, which gives doctors computerized help in assessing the best tests and treatments for their patients. (Can you imagine how difficult it would be for a doctor to keep up with the increasing complexity of modern medicine without such tools?)