Techies call it the "killer app." If invented for healthcare, such an application would be a cure-all for the industry's information technology malaise.
Most experts agree, however, that such a computerized salvation is far off-or a mirage. Instead, some groups are taking a more immediate and pragmatic approach to addressing healthcare's e-challenged information infrastructure.
One group is the recently anointed eHealth Initiative, an association that represents the interests of healthcare electronic data stakeholders. That includes everyone from hospitals and health systems to devicemakers to members of Congress.
As EHI works to publicize its mission and broaden its influence, the new group joins an increasingly populated planet of healthcare information technology trade groups that could complement, or just as easily complicate, its mission. Regardless of the potential roadblocks, EHI plans to advance research efforts and tell the e-health story to Washington, Wall Street and the industry itself.
"E-health isn't just the Internet or dot-coms," said Janet Marchibroda, EHI's founder and executive director. "It's all that's digital or electronic in the healthcare industry."
Armed with five years' experience as the chief operating officer of the National Committee for Quality Assurance in Washington, Marchibroda believes the timing is right to advance an e-health agenda for an industry famous for resisting the information technology trend. Even defining the term e-health has been difficult, she and others agree, so her group plans to make some sense of what such a definition would entail.
That involves a lot more than the bells and whistles in the latest Web-based software packages, she said. It also means educating industry decisionmakers, influencing relevant public policy, and persuading the investment community that e-health represents more than capital-thirsty dot-coms.
"There isn't enough data out there that proves the business case for e-health," Marchibroda said. "We're pulling together the case, figuring out where there are holes, and then working to fill them in."
Since its launch in February, Washington-based EHI has signed on 33 founding members. Each member pays annual fees ranging from $2,500 to $25,000 depending on the type and size of the organization he or she represents.
"To many people, (e-health) implies high-tech gadgetry or going to a commercial Web site for information or to buy a health item," said Peter Basch, M.D., medical director for information technology initiatives at MedStar Health, a seven-hospital system based in Columbia, Md., and a member of EHI. "To me, e-health is really a process in which one uses computers to aid in diagnosis, treatment, connectivity and disease management. I see the potential of e-health for physicians as dramatically increasing productivity and efficiency."
With headquarters in Chicago, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society is the largest trade group representing healthcare IT professionals-it counts more than 13,000 people as members. HIMSS' President and CEO Steve Lieber does not see a conflict between HIMSS and EHI but does worry about "the risk of fragmentation."
It's important, Lieber said, for the groups to communicate with one another so as not to operate in a vacuum.
"When it comes to achieving the best in healthcare, it's not a matter of who accomplished it," Lieber said. "It's the ability to achieve a positive outcome, and if it takes multiple groups to do that, then so be it."
Last month HIMSS announced plans to merge with the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Center for Healthcare Information Management. As a team, those two groups can "put together a much stronger voice on public policy and advocacy," Lieber said.
In addition to HIMSS and CHIM, e-health constituencies are represented by the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives, the American Health Information Management Association, the American Medical Informatics Association and even more specialized groups such as the Association for Electronic Health Care Transactions.
Marchibroda said she isn't threatened by the existing associations because she believes EHI's approach will represent a wider cross-section of those who care about and stand to benefit from e-health.
"We must use technology to address not only the clinical issues but the economic issues," Marchibroda said. That includes reforming a "pre-World War II" reimbursement structure that doesn't accommodate online doctor visits or other technology-driven care.
"To be successful, a group has to be more than a trade organization," Basch said. "It also has to be an advocacy organization, and EHI functions as both." As a physician, Basch sees EHI as a way to bring his fellow doctors into the information technology loop-and even to court the payer community.
"On a long-term basis we need payers to recognize that IT is targeted toward goals we have universally agreed to: medical error reduction and disease management." zxxx