Technology for treating and managing diabetes is progressing rapidly these days. Just a sample of some high-tech advancements: iPhone applications for monitoring glucose readings, implantable RFID chip sensors, and even a "robotic pancreas" that could regulate blood glucose levels.
But while the cutting-edge developments may make headlines, they are not yet enough to make a serious dent in the $174 billion that diabetes costs the country each year. Diabetes management is challenging for hospitals and health systems because it is a complicated chronic disease that requires a great deal of ongoing provider coordination and cooperation. Better and smarter tools may help at the margins, but the real key to tackling diabetes is making care more coordinated and patient-centered.
The technology that will make a difference in that area is more familiar and less flashy: electronic health records, telemedicine, and basic information networks for sharing and collecting data. Smart devices that can send glucose data to an information network will only be effective when there is an established and interconnected network for them to talk to. Many hospitals and health systems aren't there yet, but building that base is becoming a priority.
That's why the bulk of the $220 million that the Department of Health and Human Services awarded in grants through its Beacon Community Program is for piloting health information technology programs being used either directly or indirectly to improve diabetes care. These networks aren't easy to build, but the federal government—as well as a lot of hospitals, payers, and physicians—is convinced that the return on investment is worthwhile, if the burden is shared.
Consider the deep impact of the disease: Nearly one out of every five hospitalizations in the United States is diabetes-related, totaling more than 7.7 million hospital stays and $83 billion in hospitalization costs. That's 23% of all hospital costs in the country, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Patients with diabetes have longer lengths of stay and are more likely than the general population to enter through the emergency room. In an era of runaway costs, these are troubling statistics for most hospital executives.
Although patient-centered, interconnected care is an eventual goal for all healthcare, diabetes is an ideal starting point for building the IT backbone because of its prevalence and the improvement potential of data sharing, says John Hennessey, director of patient management systems for Kaleida Health, a five-hospital system based in Buffalo, NY. "I think from an IT perspective, having the infrastructure to share information is really the impetus."