Advancing Information Technology in Health Care

Steven M. Thompson, University of Richmond
Matthew D. Dean


The health care industry represents a major part of the U.S. economy. In 2007 total U.S. health care spending comprised 16% of the country's GDP, amounting to $2.3 trillion. According to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, approximately 20% of health care expenditure, some $460 billion in 2007, was dedicated to the tasks of processing, storing, and disseminating information, signifying the importance of these tasks in health care delivery. In fact, over the past ten years health care organizations have increasingly adopted information systems to improve numerous business processes such as patient scheduling, laboratory reporting, medical record keeping, billing, and accounting. Even though information systems have become more commonplace in health care, many opportunities to improve efficiency, productivity, and quality remain.

A number of factors, ranging from limited resources to heavy government regulation, contribute to the slow adoption of information systems by health care organizations. However, one of the greatest obstacles preventing large-scale health care IT initiatives is the nature of the industry itself. From an information systems perspective, health care lacks industry standards at the most basic levels. The lack of standards can be attributed in large part to a mostly fragmented industry comprised of a number of "local" organizations. In addition, for many health care systems, a clear return on investment is difficult to find. Improvements in productivity can be documented for certain systems, such as those dealing with billing and inventory. Although there is typically a time lag between when the technology investment is made and when productivity and financial gains are realized. However, clinical systems typically result in hard to measure improvements such as an increase in quality of care rather than a directly measurable decrease in the cost of providing care.

The end result is that most information systems currently used in health care organizations are designed to support ancillary services (such as laboratory reporting, logistics and inventory management, billing, and medical records). They do not serve the overarching process of providing patient care. As a result, while health care organizations accrue some benefits under the current state, many additional opportunities abound.