This information is for reference purposes only. It was current when produced and may now be outdated. Archive material is no longer maintained, and some links may not work. Persons with disabilities having difficulty accessing this information should contact us at: https://info.ahrq.gov. Let us know the nature of the problem, the Web address of what you want, and your contact information.
Please go to www.ahrq.gov for current information.
by Carolyn Clancy, M.D., Director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and
Initiative Conference: Connection
Communities Learning Forum, April 11, 2006
come a long way in the 2 years since President Bush put health information
technology (IT) on the front burner of health care policy. The goal of electronic health records for all
Americans hit a positive note that resounded throughout the country. And the press picked up the issue with thousands of stories about the ways information technology could help us improve health
Maybe we should call that a period of "rational
exuberance." It helped create awareness
and enthusiasm that are, as the ad would say, "priceless."
But today we've passed into a new phase. We still have the same high hopes. But
let's just call this new phase "hard work." And let's be proud and thankful that it's here.
making things happen, and we're laying the groundwork. It's complex and challenging. But today we're engaged in the real nuts and
bolts that can not only make health IT happen, but make it happen right.
It's not just about installing systems—it's
about using them to achieve better quality and better efficiency in health
also not just about the technology—it's about the
people who use the technology and what they need to make it work.
We're here to build infrastructure of two different kinds.
There's the visible infrastructure. In the case of health IT, let's call it pipes and screens.
It's the hardware and the software, the technical standards and the
common nomenclature, the protocols and the instructions.
To build the visible structure, what we often need are decisions—decisions that create agreement and let us move ahead. Those decisions can be made through consensus,
and they should be. But once they're made, it's time to move on. That's their
of course, we're building on decades of work that has gone into creating our
information technology industry. Without that work, we could hardly contemplate the kinds of advances we're seeking for health care IT. And to move that effort forward, Secretary Leavitt has created the AHIC—the American Health Information Community—to help achieve
some of the most fundamental parts of health IT's visible infrastructure.
there's also an invisible
infrastructure, and that's harder to define.
It's the human element, but it's not just knowledge or expertise. It's the soul of the enterprise, but it's
more than just the goals and purposes.
It's about the right fit between people and systems. It's about process
and relationships. And it's about trust.
If the year were still 1968, maybe we'd call it "the Tao of health IT." Whatever we call it, it's the real gravity that holds an enterprise together. And it's especially important in the early stages of an enterprise.
This invisible infrastructure of process and working relationships is crucial for putting
health IT to work and seeing it work right.
That is actually one of the strongest early lessons we're learning from our grantees
in AHRQ's health IT initiative: that some of the main challenges for health IT adoption are not technical issues, nor even what you'd call training issues.
Rather, they're issues of inclusion and trust.
When we introduce health IT systems in a clinic, we're creating new ways of doing
the clinic's work. Sometimes we're
changing working relationships among the staff.
We aim to improve care. But we're
also displacing a working culture that's grown up there.
Paying attention to this culture, respecting the people and the jobs they want to do,
is the opportunity we have when we pay attention to the invisible
infrastructure. And the transformation
to health IT is actually a rare opportunity to build it up.
One of our grantees, Susan Horn, at the Institute for Clinical Outcomes Research in
Utah, has shown how important it can be to pay attention to this "people
infrastructure" as health IT gets built into the clinic—in her case, 11 long-term care facilities.
As these facilities implement health IT systems, she and her team give frontline workers
a full voice and a real opportunity to take part in designing products and
processes that will work for them, with a view toward improving care. They introduced IT as a key element of patient care, not an add-on that might just generate work and headaches.
shown how all the members of the patient care team—from the certified nursing assistant, to the nutritionist, to the vendors who provide equipment—need to take
part and help guide the development of a system that works for them.
This is a true
part of infrastructure—building at the facility level—just one that's not so
easy to see.
staff all have a voice as systems are designed.
How should products look to be useful?
How should they be built into the workflow to improve care? How can the data be fed back to continually
And this has
had results. First, in quality of care: In the 11 facilities, the prevalence of
pressure sores has been reduced 33 percent since the IT systems were put in
place. Second, in efficiency: The number of forms that need to be filled out
to document the care has gone down by as much as half to three-quarters. Third, in the sense of ownership and reward
among staff themselves. Finally, and not
surprisingly, in the willingness and desire of staff themselves to keep the
improvement going, to bring suggestions for change, to feel empowered to help
make things better.
of our grantees are finding the same story as they approach their communities
to create health information exchanges.
Electronic exchange of information is a new and more open approach for
the health care enterprise. The privacy and security of patient records are at
stake, and old ways of getting and keeping business are being fundamentally
changed. So building health information
exchange is first and foremost about building trust and about creating new
processes that depend on new relationships.
of our grantees in Iowa,
part of the Trinity Health System, has calculated that adopting health IT
successfully is really one part technology, and two parts work flow and culture
And it really
is a new business and clinical culture for health care that we're talking
about. The results are better safety and
quality, more efficient and thorough documentation, better utilization, less
waste, improved performance measurement, and more.
But the path
to achieving these results is not just the technology. It's equally the process of incorporating the
technology. And that's a culture change.
paraphrase a well-known title: When it
comes to health IT, "it takes a culture to raise a technology."
This is a process that takes time. It should
be carried out in each new clinical setting as IT systems are adopted and in
every community as it establishes health information exchange.
It's a process that recognizes the individuality of each situation and turns that
individuality into a strength. It surely
makes all the difference between using health IT to transform a practice for
quality and efficiency and the possibility of merely adding work without
If we take advantage of it, we can achieve even more than IT systems alone could
give. If we fail to take advantage of
the opportunity, the systems will not deliver what they could and should.
hope this is a message you'll take with you: that no one else can really build
this part of the infrastructure for you—not
government, not vendors, not even other health IT leaders. Your process and your people have to be part
of your product.
Can the job be made easier? Can we help identify the right issues and pose the right questions?
Yes. And we can provide examples that work and problems to avoid.
That's certainly what we're aiming to achieve in AHRQ's health IT initiative, where we
will draw lessons from more than 100 projects of all kinds in more than 40 States
across the Nation. The lessons that are
learned at the ground level in these projects will be shared for the benefit of
all providers and communities as they move toward adopting health IT.
We also saw a good example of this kind of leadership last week by Connecting for Health, and
AHRQ is proud to be part of that initiative.
As you know, Connecting for Health released its framework of 16 technical and policy
components to protect the privacy and security of electronic health
records. These provide options for
communities. They provide a vocabulary
and a structure of issues that reflect years of thought and consensus.
But these documents are a starting point, not an end point. Decisions on health information exchange
belong to communities. Each community
needs to make the choices that work for its own circumstances. And in that process, full participation and
inclusion are key to enabling the technology to achieve its real potential.
The same is true for the work AHRQ is doing toward building privacy protection. The patchwork of State laws, not to mention differing business practices throughout the health care sector, makes the
privacy landscape enormously complicated.
With the Office of the National Coordinator, AHRQ is carrying out an $11
million effort to fully survey this landscape.
Yet our work is not just about finding the laws and the business practices. It's also about supporting a nationwide discussion on privacy and security of information. We want to make the legal landscape clear, but we also want to do more. We want to
help inform the process for communities and regions as they look toward
It's going to require productive dialog and
partnership among medical and legal professionals, consumer advocates, and
policymakers to make progress in this area.
Real community-based "dialog" and decisionmaking are what AHRQ wants to
The same principle applies at the provider level. AHRQ's health IT initiative is about informing, not directing. We want to help give a jump-start to providers as they undertake their own decision processes and to show how
important the decision processes themselves really are. But we do not want to prescribe the
answers or suggest that the important process of preparing and truly
integrating these systems can be skipped.
A report that's being released today speaks to both the value of adopting health IT and
the need to help providers with information that's meaningful for their own
commissioned this report from the RAND
Corporation, one of our 13 Evidence-based
Practice Centers. Our object was to make
a thorough search of the literature and learn what has already been rigorously
demonstrated about the costs and benefits of health IT. In a word, what do we really know?
different from the many earlier projections that have estimated future
benefits from health IT. Those projections have real importance and benefit in
showing us the dimensions of the possibilities.
But we also wanted to find what we already know—a review of
scientifically valid studies that have reported on results already achieved.
the news is good. The report finds that rigorous scientific evidence already
exists showing that health IT can deliver on key promises for better quality of
care. In particular, the evidence points
to benefits from computer ordering systems and electronic prescribing, as well
as decision support tools that provide reminders about best practices, warn
against potential adverse results, and improve the delivery of preventive
health care services. The report also
shows increases in appropriate levels of utilization.
example, it cites findings from Partners Health Care in Boston, which achieved an 86-percent
reduction in serious medication errors from computerized provider order entry (CPOE)
and e-prescribing. It also found a 34-percent
reduction in the use of redundant lab tests and a 21-percent increase in
appropriate test ordering.
the Regenstrief Institute, the report finds increases of 10 to 20 percent in
the use of preventive services.
So the report concludes that the potential of health IT to improve quality has indeed been shown. Significant benefits in quality of care and
efficiency have been rigorously demonstrated.
However, the report goes further. It finds that the
results so far come from a limited number of larger pioneering entities, like
health plans and large hospital systems, which have unusual resources and
commitment to health IT. These entities
have developed their own health IT systems, and they've committed substantial
time and effort to making the systems work in their particular
environments. Almost a quarter of the findings cited in the report come from just four sources:
- The VA.
- Intermountain Health in Utah.
Yet the fact is that most providers have very different circumstances from these pioneer
institutions. Most providers are the
smaller practices and hospitals that deliver the great majority of Americans'
health care. When these providers adopt
health IT, they'll be using commercially available systems and drawing on more
limited technical expertise. And as they
make decisions about adopting, they need information about how they can achieve
the best quality and efficiency results, given the resources they possess.
of this report are based on studies published only through 2003. So it's not a surprise that scientific
evidence from smaller practices and hospitals was very limited.
But the point
is still valid. The providers that
deliver care to most Americans need sound information that they can use.
And we can
indeed help them.
On the one
hand, our providers (and especially smaller practices and hospitals) need the
best possible information about the results that have been achieved by others
like themselves. On the other hand, they
also need to know that careful preparation and the process of "custom-fitting"
systems to their own particular setting are key components of success.
AHRQ's own initiative was designed to provide
information of just this kind. It's a
$166 million effort to support adoption of health IT by typical community
health entities like physician practices and hospitals. It's looking at health IT in all kinds of
settings, from the teaching hospital to the rural clinic. And it's aimed at generating provider-level
results of just the kind the RAND report calls for.
Some of our
grantees are using health IT for the first time. Others are building on years of
experience. In some, we're looking at
what works best when health IT is first implemented. In others, we're measuring the value added by
various health IT applications.
But in all
cases, we're looking at the use of health IT on the clinical ground level,
because the goal is to learn what works best in actual clinical settings and
share those lessons, especially through the AHRQ Resource
Center on Health IT. The lessons we learn will be available to
help all providers in adopting health IT successfully.
Of course, AHRQ's initiative is just one source.
Others, like the American Academy of Family Physicians, are also providing leadership and outstanding resources.
Certification and product testing are yet another resource that will be important. The Certification Commission is in the final stages of developing standards that will help ensure that products can perform
the basic functions they say they'll perform.
AHRQ is also working with partners on testing mechanisms to measure how well these systems
are performing once they're in use. In
particular, we've supported the Leapfrog Group in developing a test that can
measure whether clinics and hospitals are successfully achieving the Leapfrog
standard for detecting medication errors.
This is a test not merely of a facility's CPOE system itself, but of how
well the system is performing in that clinic or hospital. This could help providers in measuring their
own performance, and it could be used for public reporting as well.
Beyond this, there is yet another "testing" level that could be of great value. I'm talking about a "continuum" of testing that starts with the product alone but also extends to real interaction with the clinical staff. In other words, could
we develop not only tools to ensure the technical capacity of a stand-alone IT
product but also tools to let an IT solution be tried in particular clinical
settings by simulating the results of actual interaction with the clinic's
practices and staff? In this way, could we not achieve valuable interaction between the clinic and the IT system before the clinic puts the system online? Or
even before the purchase is made?
We know of too many situations where the clinic's practice and the computer's
design haven't matched or where the clinic has not thought through how the
applications will play out. Simulation
tools might help find those mismatches and work them out early in the process.
Let me return to our first thought. We have indeed entered the phase of "hard work" in health IT. And we need to make that work count for all
What do we know today, and what more do we need to know to get the results we want?
know that health IT indeed has the potential to improve health care
dramatically. And we know we have an
entire infrastructure to build in order to bring that potential to reality.
know most Americans get their health care from smaller medical practices and
hospitals. And we know these providers
need information that applies to their own circumstances as they make their
decisions on adopting IT systems.
also know that the smaller practices and hospitals are lagging in IT
adoption. We're working on many fronts
to help make available the information and the tools they need.
But I hope that we, and providers
themselves, will realize something else as well: that achieving health IT is not only about
reaching common standards and protocols.
It's also about the individuality of each provider and each community,
and the need to make IT systems work for each of them.
At AHRQ and elsewhere, we can help. We can develop
and share the information that providers and communities need.
But the decisions are yours, not ours. They need
to fit your situation, not a one-size-fits-all.
Adopting health IT at the provider level has to be your decision, your ownership, your
And that process is crucial. It can create a
custom fit between your IT and your practice.
It can deliver better results for patients and staff alike. It can even help draw out the knowledge and
creative energy in your staffs that may be waiting to be used.
That's the ideal. It's the "invisible
infrastructure," and it's not easy to describe. But it's an important part of getting what
we want and need out of health IT.
I called it a new culture of health IT. So let me just
close with this thought:
If it truly "takes a culture to raise a technology," then what does it take to create a
culture? And do it on deadline?
Well, for starters: energy and staying power, vision and inclusion, straight talk and
So that's what I wish for you as you take forward the lessons from this conference.
The invisible infrastructure... is you.
Current as of April 2006