Just when your information-technology strategy is finally formed, fitted, financed and picking up speed, a phenomenally promising alternative to much of that strategy jumps out screaming, "Stop in your tracks!"
That phenomenon is the Internet. But it has much less to do with the Internet highway itself than it does with the breakthrough technology created to search near and far for information and then pass it between computers that normally would be incompatible.
Healthcare providers have been hard at work for several years on the business imperative of integrating incompatible information sources as networks expand both geographically and in number and type of participants.
Maturing technologies such as integration software and distributed computing schemes have been tapped for the job, offering a complex but plausible solution.
Now comes the Internet-technology juggernaut with the potential to bridge distances and create computer compatibility simply and cheaply. But counting on "potential" at this crucial stage of the information transformation is tricky and risky business. What's a healthcare executive to do?
On the promising side, light-speed advances in Internet technology are bringing all electronic commerce closer to the day when browsers originally invented for the World Wide Web can function as personal computer desktop systems, facilitating the search and exchange of files within the same room or across town.
The transmissions can use standard or souped-up telephone lines just as routinely as the formal Internet to find the target computer-whether it's a monstrous database server or a doctor's rec-room PC-and do authorized swaps of data.
This blueprint could come in handy to solve the continuing problems of meshing the various types of computer hardware and software that are thrown together whenever new network affiliations are hatched.
And emerging abilities to update computer programs and instructions via a central control point to thousands of points in a network could flatten the costs of maintaining current versions of software in all those hard drives.
But remember, this is still mainly theory, not proof. And a Web browser still has big shoes to fill in healthcare.
There's some healthy skepticism in the industry about how comprehensively such technology can handle the complex challenge of integrating and transmitting healthcare data quickly, accurately and securely.
Feeling lucky? Executives may have to wager the proven but pricey ability of current integrative technology against the potential of Internet-derived technologies to do much the same thing in the coming year.
If they race ahead with best-laid plans, and Web technology wins big, they'll be spending too much on a computerization formula. Maybe even worse, the newer ways may become the standard.
But if the technology falls short, the organizations betting on it will fall behind in their survival-related quest for coordinated data management and operational efficiency.