The health-care system is one of the most technology-dependent parts of the American economy, and one of the most primitive. Every patient knows, and dreads, the first stage of any doctor visit: sitting down with a clipboard and filling out forms by hand.
David Blumenthal, a physician and former Harvard Medical School professor, was from 2009 to 2011 the national coordinator for health information technology, in charge of modernizing the nation’s medical-records systems. He now directs The Commonwealth Fund, a foundation that conducts health-policy research. Here, he talks about why progress has been so slow, and when and how that might change.
James Fallows: From the lay public’s point of view, medical records seem incredibly backward. Is the situation any better than it looks?
David Blumenthal: It’s on the way to getting better. But we still have a long way to go. The reason why the medical profession has been so slow to adopt technology at the point of contact with patients is that there is an asymmetry of benefits.
From the patient’s perspective, this is a no-brainer. The benefits are substantial. But from the provider’s perspective, there are substantial costs in setting up and using the systems. Until now, providers haven’t recovered those costs, either in payment or in increased satisfaction, or in any other way. Ultimately, there are of course benefits to the professional as well. It’s beyond question that you become a better physician, a better nurse, a better manager when you have the digital data at your fingertips. But the costs are considerable, and they have fallen on people who have no economic incentive to make the transition. The benefits of a more efficient practice largely accrue to people paying the bills. The way economists would describe this is that the medical marketplace is broken.