Health IT has problems, but is worth the price

I started working with computers in medicine in 1963. I was a Captain in the United States Army Medical Corps in San Francisco when a Lieutenant Colonel told me to “automate the California Tumor Tissue Registry.”

I said, “Yes, Sir. How would I do that?” He told me to walk across the Presidio parking lot and go into a building that had a big machine in it that is called a computer.

I did that, and for the next three months, I took the information that was on a bunch of 3 by 5 cards and converted that data into punch cards, which were then fed into the computer and out came an automated California Tumor Tissue Registry.

I was hooked and, although never a “techie,” I never stopped finding ways to use computers in medicine. The goal was always better, faster, cheaper.

I remain a strong advocate, and have worked in a string of jobs that strived for that goal. One of the truths I learned early on was “G I G O” — Garbage In; Garbage Out. That has not changed.

There are indeed a huge number of medical tasks that computers can do very well if properly programmed, managed, and utilized. The eminent UCSF academic clinician Dr. Bob Wachter was early in recognizing that there were also significant downsides in applying computers in practice.

Physicians are very smart. They will quickly adopt new technology that helps them get their job done if it does not waste their time.

Most American physicians have dragged their feet on implementing computers into their practices, and with good reasons. But now they should get on with it.

I write this column as it has been announced that 100,000 U.S. physicians and hospitals have signed up for the “meaningful use” incentive program and thus been able to take the government’s money to help automate their organizations.

I think this is good and I praise Dr. David Blumenthal for his major efforts to make this happen.

However, there is another harsh critic worth listening to. His name is Dr. Scot Silverstein, and he seems to have made it his life’s work to call attention to really bad problems that he discovers in this mass move to automation.

Heed his cautions. They are real.

But also recognize that where there is progress, there is trouble; but it can be worth the price.

George Lundberg is a MedPage Today Editor-at-Large and former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Originally published in MedPage Today. Visit MedPageToday.com for more health policy news.

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