Obama’s Trojan horse: the healthcare IT initiative

February 6, 2009

The makers of electronic medical records are already hatching plans to dig into the $20 billion-plus in the president’s stimulus plan dedicated to a healthcare IT initiative. As orders for medical capital equipment, such as MR and CT scanners, plummet, federal spending to build this infrastructure is shaping up as one of the few bright spots in the year ahead.

The makers of electronic medical records are already hatching plans to dig into the $20 billion-plus in the president's stimulus plan dedicated to a healthcare IT initiative. As orders for medical capital equipment, such as MR and CT scanners, plummet, federal spending to build this infrastructure is shaping up as one of the few bright spots in the year ahead.

But as vendors slide advanced servers and archives into place, pull wire and set up wireless hubs, and tailor programs to fit the exact needs of their burgeoning population of customers, are they putting in place the means for gathering the data that will be used against them when they return to sell the diagnostic equipment upon which these companies so depend?

Throughout much of imaging history, getting administrators to purchase or lease PACS and other such IT products has been like pulling teeth. These systems don't generate income, not like a CT or MR scanner does. They promise savings through increased efficiency and productivity, but these revenues usually aren't easy to see.

Now the feds are getting involved, and they have good reason to do so. Medicare spending continues to rise and is likely to accelerate as more and more baby-boomers reach 65. Meanwhile, healthcare costs keep going up, due largely to inefficiency. This will grow worse as the economic downturn throws more people out of work along with their insurance coverage, leading to more emergency room visits for conditions that are put off for too long.

EMRs will make the system work better by improving efficiency and gathering the data to determine protocols that lead to better health and cost reductions. The government won't tell doctors how to practice medicine. They just won't pay for ways they believe don't work. And third-party payers will follow suit.

Medical device companies that get ahead of this curve will prosper. They will do so by conducting their own research to find out what works. Engineers will tailor equipment lines accordingly. Marketing will extol the virtues of the refined products. The new healthcare IT infrastructure will document their value. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and third-party payers will demand their use. And healthcare in the U.S. will be transformed.

The Obama initiative is a Trojan horse. It carries more than its outward appearance would indicate. Electronic medical records will improve efficiency and will reduce medical errors. The most significant reason for their widespread introduction, however, is to reform medical care in the U.S.

But this hidden agenda need not work against the makers of medical imaging equipment. If vendors recognize the Obama initiative for what it is, get onboard early, and turn it to their advantage, not only in the short haul in terms of IT sales but over the long term, everyone -- providers, patients, and vendors -- can benefit.