In a world where almost everything we do relies on technology — from how we manage our finances to how we make a cup of coffee — it is surprising that less than 50 percent of health care providers are utilizing updated software solutions to streamline interoperability and patient management.

Removing human error

Despite that statistic, our nation has made rapid gains when it comes to adopting and using electronic health records. In 2009, most hospitals, doctors’ offices and health facilities were still capturing patient information on paper and sharing it via fax machines. “The fact that health care was still a paper world eight years ago is just incredible,” says Dr. Vindell Washington, the national coordinator at The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC). “There was a time when everyone had scores of doctors’ handwriting jokes.

“All the while, many of us in health care knew even then that the errors in medicine due to illegible handwriting were more like horror stories. Many tragic errors were the result. That’s one of the reasons going digital has real impact.”

Improved data sharing

ONC’s mission is to help unlock health data and put it to work. “First, we are changing how we pay doctors, so they can focus on the quality of care they provide, not the quantity of services they order,” explains Washington. “Second, we are making changes to help improve care, by encouraging better coordination and prioritizing wellness and prevention. And third, by unlocking that information, we’re helping to empower patients and give doctors the data they need to provide the best possible care.”

Washington emphasizes that health technologies need to be able to speak the same language, or at least have reliable interpreters in the form of interfaces, to truly unleash the potential of all the electronic health care data that now exists in the ecosystem.

“Health technologies need to be able to speak the same language, or at least have reliable interpreters in the form of interfaces…”

The advances have real benefits for patients, too. “Individuals with access to their health information are better able to monitor chronic conditions, adhere to treatment plans, find and fix errors, and directly contribute their information to research,” states Washington. “In fact, research has found that when individuals have access to, and use, their health information electronically, they feel a greater sense of trust in how their health information is being managed and in how providers are protecting their patient rights.”

Enhancing patients’ understanding

Even though there’s still a big push for more health care providers to adopt SaaS (software as a service) and cloud-based technology, data does show that nearly all of the nation’s hospitals provide patients with the ability to view their health information electronically. “Close to 90 percent provide individuals the ability to download their health information,” notes Washington. “And almost 70 percent provide patients with the ability to view, download and transmit their health information.” It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but there are still plenty of health care providers that have yet to use advanced technology to improve information exchange, value-based care and financial performance.

That’s why Washington and the ONC are focused on increasing information sharing and better outcomes for patients. “Health IT is often glazed over,” says Washington. “When in reality, it is essential infrastructure.”

Although there’s still a lot of work to do, efforts thus far shouldn’t be ignored. “Our technology journey hasn’t been perfect, and it won’t be perfect,” Washington admits. “But the great strides we have made, in a few short years, are truly remarkable. And I can’t imagine us going back.”