Doctors call for increased use of IT

Enterprises aren’t the only organizations that suffer from silos of data. So does the medical community, a Toronto health informatics conference has been told.

Dr. Bruce Friedman, professor emeritus of pathology at the University of Michigan medical school, said that for too long pathologists– who look at patient tissues through microscopes, and radiologists – who look at x-rays – have operated as separate, sometimes undigitized disciplines.

Their reports go separately to clinicians, who have to make a diagnosis.

But, Friedman said, it’s time, to bring the disciplines together through information technology to create a single “super diagnosis” to make it easier for doctors.

His speech on Thursday at the opening of the two-day Advances in Health Informatics Conference was one of a number of presentations by doctors and researchers on how IT can improve patient outcomes.

The conference led off with former Canadian astronaut Dr. Dave Williams, now chief executive officer and assistant professor of surgery at Ontario’s Southlake Regional Health Centre, saying health informatics “is truly the disruptive, revolutionary change that will change the way we deliver health care.”

By giving patients electronically-collected data about themselves, clinicians can empower them to monitor their health through exercise and better diet, he said.

Companies are already making or experimenting with Band-aid-sized digital monitors or tiny radio transmitters that can be swallowed that wirelessly transmit vital signs, giving clinicians a wealth of data. Much of that should be accessed by patients through online portals, he said.

“I am totally convinced this type of diagnostic technology will totally revolutionize the way think of managing patients from an in-patient to an out-patient basis.”

Meanwhile hospital patient ID wrist straps with bar codes or RFID tags will help cut into the estimated billions of dollars in medical identification and prescription errors, he said.

On the other hand, Williams acknowledged that not every medical IT idea will work. Early in his career he tried to develop a voice-activated electronic medical record for emergency departments. “I failed remarkably because the technology wasn’t ready,” he said.

But researchers have to learn from their failures, he said.

Not everyone in the audience was convinced. During a question and answer session, one doctor worried that physicians will suffer from a massive overdose of digital patient data, while patients with wearable monitors will create a generation of hypochondriacs.

It’s a valid question, Williams said. The medical profession has to examine what are best tools and how to provide them to patients to get the best results.

Friedman urged the profession to move to digitizing radiology and pathology work. Manufacturers of laboratory and radiology information systems may be willing to build a combined system, he said, but only if they see demand.

Still, he acknowledged that the two disciplines are very resistant to working closely together, in part for financial reasons. Already in the U.S. there are companies that do analysis of digital radiology work overnight in India and Australia, he said, prompting some hospitals to get rid of their radiologists. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn’t approved some technology.

Friedman also said he admires the use of digital technologies in Canadian hospitals.

In an interview after Friedman’s speech, Williams said that “we’re just in the early days of looking at the efficiencies that can be gained with digital pathology.”

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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