"Man, I'm sure glad we're finally done with that monster Y2...Hey!"
Just when healthcare executives thought they could return to their normal information systems worries, they're facing a scenario like Y2K in scope and urgency: the Administrative Simplification Act.
Most industry managers are winded from wrestling with Y2K and the monstrous systemwide transformation it required the past two years.
But while they were preoccupied with Y2K and the fallout from the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, the federal government was slogging through the specifics of mandates handed down four years ago under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
The edicts generally call for standardizing and securing the elements of electronic healthcare transmissions. Those elements, including claims data and universal identifiers for providers and health plans, will have to be instilled in and supported by every business process of a healthcare organization. Final regulations should start hitting this month; most have a 24-month implementation deadline.
That means another monstrous systemwide transformation during the next two years for healthcare executives who are still recovering from the Y2K bug.
Meanwhile, healthcare is pressed-some would say blessed-with the prospect of bringing Internet technology to bear on longstanding information deficiencies.
The technology that made the World Wide Web explosion possible also works in private computer networks to unlock and aggregate data from previously incompatible computers, making information accessible from almost anywhere. Technology companies are now figuring out ways to deliver not only data but also software applications securely through the Internet.
The biggest drag on the Internet's momentum is the state of software development: Everyone is working on Internet-technology breakthroughs, but in most cases it's not soup yet.
The upside is that such efforts are exponentially further along than they were just a year ago. And healthcare actually may have benefited from the pause in acquiring information systems for anything other than solutions to Y2K problems.
The pause gave the new technology a chance to catch up. Now there are prospective solutions to ferreting out and transmitting data securely that would not have been options two years ago had healthcare providers been able to forge ahead unfettered.
At the same time, the delays accelerate the urgency to make decisions on computer network-building and clinical software acquisition, putting information strategy right up there with the concurrent scramble to meet HIPAA deadlines.
Happily, those dual technology imperatives may be linked rather than in competition for attention and resources. The standards and ease of implementation inherent in Web technology are in many ways just what the doctor ordered to tackle the vast organizational retooling required for HIPAA compliance.
Savvy executives will use Web technology to make HIPAA-mandated changes while they integrate existing and new information systems to make clinical management and administration more efficient.