Firms poised to help medical sector digitize data

PHILADELPHIA (MCT) — Imagine cradle-to-grave personalized health information, computerized and centralized.

Scary? Or part of the salvation of America’s expensive and unwieldy health system? If it saves lives and improves efficiency, as proponents say, it will mean billions of dollars of business for hardware, software and consulting companies.

No wonder companies are positioning themselves to profit from electronic medical records.

Tens of billions of dollars worth of technology — depending on who’s estimating and how — would be needed to bridge existing islands of medical information now stored in files in doctors’ offices, pharmacies, insurance companies, hospitals, laboratories and workplaces.

Doctors’ offices, now notoriously paper-dependent, would need to go digital. So would hospitals, and they would all need help.

Gone would be those under-the-bed cartons of old X-rays, children’s immunization records, and medical bills. The pharmacist could log on to see all a patient’s prescriptions, avoiding dispensing pills in harmful combinations.

An electronic medical record, linked to hospitals, doctors and pharmacies, would follow someone from her first day to her last. Under some scenarios, the individual would control the record; in others, control would remain with health-care providers.

Whether payers, such as insurance companies, or academics doing broad-based research would be able to link in remains an open question. So does the amount of access that employers would have.

However it is set up, it will cost billions to implement.

BBC Research & Consulting, a Denver market-research firm, predicts that the market for health-information technology will reach $34.7 billion in sales by 2011 — and that does not include computer systems used by insurers, employers or even individuals to keep track of their care.

“It bodes very well for a company like mine, being in the right place in the right time with the right product,” said Dennis Gallagher, a salesman for Vitalize Consulting Solutions Inc. in Kennett Square, Pa., a 115-employee firm that helps hospitals and doctors convert from paper to electronic systems.

And it also bodes well for Gallagher’s former employer, Siemens Medical Solutions USA — a multibillion-dollar unit of the German company with its U.S. headquarters in Malvern, Pa. Siemens is one of the nation’s largest providers of clinical software coordinating patient care in hospitals and doctor practices.

Earlier this month, Gallagher and 130 other members of the Delaware Valley Health care Information and Management Systems Society went to the Siemens corporate campus for its regular monthly meeting.

The speaker? Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose Center for Health Transformation think tank in Washington has been a major advocate of using information technology to enable patients to receive better care at lower cost. And Siemens, which helps fund Gingrich’s center, is trying to boost its presence in the electronic-medical-record market.

“Our commitment is to educate” doctors and hospitals, said Connie D’Argenio, vice president of health services for Siemens, who introduced Gingrich at the event earlier this month. If doctors and hospitals want to spend money on technology, she said, “then we’ll be well-positioned to be their partners.”

About half of Siemens Medical’s $10.3 billion in annual sales derives from the United States, and a sizable portion of that comes from information-technology systems that Siemens sells to coordinate and computerize clinical care in hospitals and doctors’ offices.

For example, Siemens showed Gingrich its bar-code technology that requires a nurse, before dispensing medicine, to scan bar codes on her identification badge, on the medicine package, and on the patient’s hospital bracelet. That raises the patient’s chart on a computer wheeled into the room and confirms that the right patient is receiving the right dose of the right medicine at the right time, while also pointing out any potential counterindications and generating a care record for the future.

Gingrich said the government should finance an electronic medical network as part of the nation’s defense system against, for example, a bioterrorism attack, just as Dwight Eisenhower initially funded the interstate highway as a national defense network during the Cold War.

“It is virtually inevitable that we will move to an electronic health record for every person, and that health record will start with prenatal care and end with analytics after you passed away,” Gingrich said in his speech, which was Webcast to 803 Siemens customers and employees around the nation.

Although there has been talk of electronic medical records for at least a decade, several factors have been moving it to the forefront.

The rising cost of health care and its effect on the nation’s competitiveness, the health needs of aging baby-boomers, leadership from the Bush administration nationally and increased technological proficiency are all driving support for such records.

Last month, five major corporations — among them Intel Corp., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Pitney Bowes Inc. — announced they would finance the development of Dossia, a Web-based personal health record available to their 2.5 million employees, dependents and retirees.

Controlled by employees, Dossia would cull information from their doctors, hospitals and pharmacies to create a comprehensive health history that would be portable and private.

“As an employer, we’ve got 50,000 people,” said Colin Evans, director of policy and standards at California-based Intel.

Evans said the company’s motivation in financing Dossia was more about concerns it has as one of the nation’s largest employers, rather than for potential new business it might garner through electronic medical records.

“We spend half a billion dollars on health care every year,” he said. “One could argue that it is out of control. The amount we spend on health care is pricing jobs out of the U.S. to other places.”