By Tom Still

WASHINGTON — It may not be the latest drug that saves your life the next time you’re sick, but the best computer software.

Fully harnessing the power of information technology to improve medical care in the United States was the theme of a half-day summit in Washington that convened 200 health-care leaders to hear about the latest federal initiatives.

Organized by U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor, the May 6 summit was officially called to announce the appointment of a National Health Information Technology Coordinator. He is Dr. David J. Brailer, most recently a senior fellow at the Health Technology Center in San Francisco.

In true Thompson style, however, the real reason for summoning health care leaders from Massachusetts to California was to hold a pep rally and to hand out assignments for a nine-month campaign to dramatically hasten the pace of change.

“The most amazing thing about 21st century medicine is that it’s held together by 19th century paperwork,” Thompson said. “Health information technology promises huge benefits, and we need to move quickly across many fronts to capture these benefitsナ (We must) press down the accelerator and bring about the benefits of health IT even faster.”

What are those benefits? According to Thompson and others who spoke at the conference, it boils down to quality, safety, speed and cost.

 Making patient records instantly available whenever and wherever they are needed and authorized.
 Ensuring that those records are always up to date.
 Avoiding costly duplicate tests and unnecessary hospitalizations. About 20 percent of all hospital lab tests are ordered because previous results cannot be found.
 Providing medical professionals with the best and latest treatment options.
 Helping eliminate medical errors, which some experts believe could be slashed by as much as 90 percent.
 Creating opportunities to gather non-identifiable information about health outcomes for research to pinpoint the most effective treatments.
 Controlling costs, perhaps saving as much as $140 billion per year.
 Protecting patient privacy.

Thompson’s goal, reinforced by President Bush, is to create a national health information infrastructure to set standards and create networks that would allow a doctor or hospital to immediately gather relevant information – test results, medical history and medical images — by computer. Local health centers would store and retrieve information, and security would be tight. But an Internet-based infrastructure would make it possible for information to flow quickly within a hospital or across health systems.

Initial steps announced at Thompson’s summit include the adoption of 15 standards for allowing the electronic exchange of clinical health information among federal agencies, the creation of a common medical “vocabulary” for the exchange of medical information, and the groundwork for standardizing an electronic health record.

“Health IT today is like the automobile industry before Henry Ford,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose consulting work now involves health care. “There are a bunch of people in the business all doing it at a high cost.”

Another conference speaker, Veterans Affairs Secretary Anthony Principi, used another transportation analogy to explain the need for health IT standards. When the width of railroad tracks was standardized in the 1800s, the number of miles of railroad tracks in the United States grew geometrically. “We are laying quality health-care tracks for the 21st century,” Principi said.

Wisconsin is a state already chugging down the tracks when it comes to health information technology. Companies such as GE Health Care (formerly GE Medical Systems) and Epic Systems are national leaders. The Medical College of Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin and Marshfield Clinic are well on their way to paperless medical record systems. Most of those Wisconsin institutions and more were represented at the health IT summit.

“Doctors deserve to focus on the quality of their care, not the quantity of their paperwork,” Thompson told conference participants. No arguments there. What’s also needed is a federal IT infrastructure that values innovation as much as it values standards. Let’s set standards for the exchange of information, but don’t allow those standards to get in the way of talented innovators in Wisconsin and elsewhere exploring new horizons.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.