Digging Deeper to Answer Healthcare’s Great Challenges

April 11, 2012
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About two months ago, I traveled to Las Vegas for the largest meeting in the health IT industry called the Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) Annual Conference. I was asked to kick off a special, pre-HIMSS physician’s symposium so my wife and I arrived a few days in advance of the show. As this happened to coincide with my birthday, she surprised me with an unconventional present – bulldozer lessons – on what I can only describe as a construction-site playground.

About two months ago, I traveled to Las Vegas for the largest meeting in the health IT industry called the Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) Annual Conference. I was asked to kick off a special, pre-HIMSS physician’s symposium so my wife and I arrived a few days in advance of the show. As this happened to coincide with my birthday, she surprised me with an unconventional present – bulldozer lessons – on what I can only describe as a construction-site playground. After a few hours learning the intricacies of operating the equipment, I was able to dig my own holes and fill them back up. It was a dream come true for a former eight year old boy. Now, what does that have to do with healthcare?

I’m currently preparing to attend TEDMED, a gathering of leaders in the healthcare industry who will be discussing the challenges that we face today. These individuals will be challenging us to think differently about the use of information technology in health care – to come up with new solutions. This upcoming conversation harkens back to my experience in Las Vegas. In healthcare, we go to great lengths to “dig up” or acquire patient data (whether by oral history, physical exam, imaging test or laboratory analysis) and then, after determining the next course of action and addressing the health concern, we promptly bury the information; not using the data until the next time the patient is seen.

When I learned that Siemens was going to participate in TEDMED I was intrigued at the prospect of hearing how these assembled innovators are approaching this particular challenge. Once “dug up,” what are some of the ways we can continue to use the data to improve care for the patient?

Consider that Siemens Healthcare has three primary pillars: health IT, diagnostic imaging modalities like X-ray and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and advanced in vitro diagnostics. In the next five to 10 years, those technologies have the potential to reach a point of convergence.

One type of powerful convergence will be the creation of more accurate, predictive models. Take a common condition such as hypertension, which can be managed with diet and lifestyle modifications and with medication in some cases. Also consider that improperly managed hypertension can often lead to more significant issues such as heart disease, stroke or even heart failure. Through a combination of advanced in vitro diagnostics, diagnostic imaging and the data archiving and extraction capabilities afforded by an electronic health record, we could identify those individuals most at risk and start them on a regimen modifying diet and behavior — well in advance of the onset of hypertension, and certainly well before more serious issues develop.

While this scenario will not always play out exactly the same for all individuals, the potential to give people more concrete, personalized information about their health outlook could motivate many to make the required modifications. However, bringing together the clinical evidence and drawing meaningful conclusions will require sophisticated and refined IT tools to excavate meaningful information from volumes of data.

Today we see this as a complex challenge, but analytical tools that leverage the convergence of diverse types of data may be become one of the most critical undertakings in our ability to deliver cost-effective, timely and high-quality care.

As for the bulldozer lessons? I highly recommend them.