Here Comes the Stimulus Money, Now Spend It Wisely

Kathryn Mackenzie, for HealthLeaders Media , February 24, 2009

KM: What is a socio-technical environment?

RA: One of things we talk about in the paper is an emerging view of the clinical workplace called the socio-technical environment. Basically it's the idea that you can't divorce the people in the environment and the processes and culture and organizational workflows in the environment from the technology and vice versa. If you just put a technology in place and don't consider all of these other factors, then in most cases our feeling is that the technology won't succeed.

KM: Do you think that lack of recognition is one of the things holding up adoption?

RA: There are a lot of things factored into that. One, it's extraordinarily expensive to do. In big hospital systems it could approach $75 to $100 million just for implementation. That is not including ongoing maintenance costs or the hidden cost of trying to engage your staff, which is vital. Also, in the U.S. our overall experience implementing these systems has not been extensive. A lot of the big studies showing benefits from information technology systems occurred at major academic hospitals that have been working on those systems for 30 years. That has left some of the smaller hospitals wondering if they can really purchase a commercial system and get the same results.

Our results would suggest they could. We looked at a lot of hospital types for this study, many were not academic, and we found if they were able to meet the criteria I talked about before, the patients in those hospitals had improved odds of some of those outcomes.

KM: What was the purpose of the study?

RA: Usually the studies that have tried to look at outcomes have either looked at just a single institution or they've looked at multiple institutions, but simply asked the hospital whether they had an electronic medical record or not. There are a lot of important components that are missed in a blunt analysis like that. So we spent three or four years developing a physician-based instrument that would assess how effective an information technology system was and then we used that to address the questions we were interested in looking at.

KM: What questions were you trying to answer and how did the instrument you created help with that?

RA: It's called the Clinical Information Technology Assessment Tool. We designed an instrument that asked physicians for the routine activities that they do on a daily basis, like ordering tests, for example. Then we determined if that process is available to do electronically. If it is, does physician or nurse know how to activate that electronic process? And third, even if it's available electronically and they know how to activate it, do they choose to do that over other processes? By creating those three criteria, I think that we set the bar very high for the usability, the maturity, as well as the functionality of an information system.

Just spending money and getting a product is not the same as achieving a high score on this instrument. For all the activities we assessed at each of the hospitals we studied, we found a very strong association between high performance on this instrument and clinical outcomes. So the big distinction is that we not only measured the presence of information technology, we measured its use and functionality.

KM: What do you hope people will take away from the results of this study?

RA: These results are very promising, but I think additional studies are needed. Certainly, a variety of perspectives are needed as we enter this $19 billion stimulus phase, in terms of specifically measuring outcomes. I would encourage the government as well as others to really carefully think about how we would measure how well systems are doing and, particularly, how would we translate success stories from certain institutions to others that may be struggling. We are at a wonderful point right now in American healthcare to be able to see information technology come in. I think we need to exercise respect for potentially how difficult it is to do and how much caution we should exercise in implementing this.

The notion that a healthcare system is a combination of technologies and its people is not new, but it is often overlooked. If CIOs don't take the extra steps to make sure the hospital staff is not divorced from the technology, there is the potential to spend a great deal of money without changing a thing.

Kathryn Mackenzie is technology editor of HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at
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