IT in healthcare: a mixed bag?

The use of technology is often a hit-and-miss affair, partly the result of market hype and a lack of competition in the profession, says one practitioner.
Written by Aaron Tan, Contributor

SINGAPORE--Technology in the healthcare industry has not lived up to its promises, according to the head-honcho of a local hospital.

"In various hospitals around the world, we're beginning to see wireless applications being used, partly because doctors and nurses need to move around the hospital," said Liak Teng Lit, CEO of Singapore-based Alexandra Hospital, during a recent seminar on the use of IT in healthcare.

Liak, a pharmacist by training, recalled a technology project where "computers on wheels" were used by doctors to access patient records on the go. "But they found themselves stuck in a room somewhere, because the batteries died mid-way," he quipped. "It's quite amazing how people test technology without thinking about what they're doing."

According to Liak, the healthcare industry has had mixed feelings about IT.

"Although the technology [for healthcare] is here, it doesn't work very often," he said. "It could [potentially] waste taxpayers' money and increase healthcare costs for everyone."

Liak added that hospitals are often trapped in the technology hype. "The more [technology] we have, the greedier we get. We keep adding features and at the end of the day, we soak up bandwidth and don't use technology in the right way."

Still, he gave examples of technology projects that were considered successful, especially during the Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak that plagued the region in 2003.

Then, a RFID (radio frequency identification) system was used by Alexandra Hospital to monitor and track workers who had been in contact with Sars-infected patients. Liak added that the hospital collaborated with Singapore's Defense Science and Technology Agency on the project.

"But it was quite expensive," he said. "We spent a few hundred thousand dollars, and I don't think it will be of much use today."

Liak also highlighted a bed management system, which was developed by networking giant Cisco Systems. With the system, alerts on when a bed needs to be tidied to make way for an incoming patient will be broadcast to healthcare workers carrying handheld devices, he said. The hospital is expecting to slash 30 percent off the time spent on assigning beds to new patients.

To give healthcare professionals greater mobility, Alexandra Hospital also embarked on a project with IT vendor Fujitsu, to equip its doctors with tablet PCs. Although doctors could access patient records anywhere at the hospital, the initiative did not work out as well as he had hoped.

"The software wasn't friendly, the tablet PC was heavy and you don't really need to be mobile most of the time," he said.

Despite the challenges, Liak is not dismissing the role of technology in healthcare.

According to research company Gartner, global IT spending by healthcare providers will grow 5 per cent annually from 2004 through 2009. This market will be led by the services segment, where annual growth rates will be between 8.2 percent and 10.3 percent over the same period, Gartner figures indicate.

Liak said: "Healthcare is becoming more complex today, with the need to conduct multiple tests [on patients] and make decisions. In 10 years, no doctor can diagnose or treat a patient without the help of technology, because there's just too much information to interpret."

Technology would also allow hospitals to provide personalized services, which remains an uphill task for now. "Typically, when you go to a hospital, nobody would recognize who you are even though you might have been there 10 times," he said.

Much more than just good service, Liak said personalized services provide information about a patient, such as dietary requirements, spoken language and drug allergies--things that determine how a doctor would manage and treat a patient.

"Going to a hospital is more dangerous than doing a bungee jump," he said. Accidents and mistakes--such as wrong drug prescriptions--happen much more often at hospitals, he added.

Meanwhile, greater competition may just boost technology adoption in the healthcare industry, which is often protected by governments and trade unions, Liak said. As such, there is no incentive for the industry to be competitive by embracing technology, he noted.

"The telco and banking industries did not computerize [operations] out of the goodness of their heart. They invest millions of dollars because there's competition," he added.

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