Why tech giants won’t solve all of healthcare’s IT ills

There’s growing interest in healthcare by large companies such as Apple, Amazon and Google, but the challenges of the market won’t be erased that quickly.

Healthcare’s IT challenges are numerous and widely known—there are multiple issues with interoperability, exploding quantities of data, security and usability, just to name a few.

To date, health IT largely has been the domain of specialized vendors whose names—Epic, Cerner, Allscripts, and Meditech, among others—are familiar primarily to providers and others in the healthcare IT industry.

But now, global technology giants such as Google, Apple and Amazon are either announcing or at least hinting at plans to enter the market. With the best of the best in the IT world joining the fray, optimism typically rises that vexing problems, such as interoperability and usability, will be solved in the near future.

While these companies are extraordinarily innovative and rich in financial and technical resources, success in health IT is not guaranteed. Here are just three of the factors that general-purpose technology vendors should bear in mind as they consider jumping into the health IT pond.

Today’s hospital environment is exceedingly complicated
Very few hospitals in the U.S. have one system for everything. While EHRs encompass a large swath of functionality, many hospitals also have dedicated systems that automate various operational, financial and administrative tasks, any or all of which may hold critical pieces of health information. Because data is coming from all over, combining and presenting it meaningfully so it is actionable for clinicians is a huge challenge.

Meanwhile, users have varying levels of access to these systems. Nurses, for example, will have different rights than a pharmacist or a physician. As often is the case in business-to-business IT, the buyer of the technology—usually a professional or executive in the administration or IT department—isn’t the user. And the healthcare “customer” —the patient—who presumably is the ultimate beneficiary of these technology solutions rarely, if ever, interacts directly with the software.

All these factors combine to complicate the environment in which health IT vendors regularly play.

Adoption and implementation cycles are notoriously long
Large hospitals and health systems often take years to analyze their options before making an enterprise IT purchase, and even smaller facilities can take six to 12 months, because the stakes are so high in healthcare IT. Patients’ lives are on the line—witness the $1 billion class-action lawsuit filed against eClinicalWorks—so prudence and patience are mandatory for buyers.

While other industries have long technology buying cycles, if a bank makes an error, the cost is monetary—it is not a life-or-death matter.

Further complicating things is the fact that, by the time a hospital’s evaluation and selection process is well down the road, it is possible that a newer version of a product has launched, a new vendor has emerged or regulations have changed, and the entire cycle may start over. So no vendor entering the healthcare IT market should expect quick returns.

Providers’ information needs are highly individualized
Doctors are notoriously busy people, so they want computers to make their lives easier, not slow them down. Yet the common complaint about today’s EHRs is that they hinder rather than help physicians. What doctors really want is software that gives them the specific information they need, exactly where and when they want it—in other words, systems tailored to their particular workflow. After all, a cardiologist has completely different needs than a surgeon, an orthopedist or an oncologist.

How do you take the geometrically increasing store of healthcare data, curate it for each doctor, present it clearly, and make it easy for them to take action on? Again, it’s complicated, to say the least.

Tech giants may indeed solve some of the challenges that have plagued healthcare IT for decades. If anyone were to come in and completely change the healthcare game, perhaps the most likely would be a company like Google, Apple or Amazon.

Still, those who have worked in this industry for a long time—either as a user of technology or one of its developers—know enough to not to understate the magnitude of the challenges. Changes and advances in technology will be helpful and “raise all boats,” but don’t expect any magic wands to emerge that will solve each and every IT conundrum.

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