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What is Health IT? A Comprehensive Overview

By its name, health information technology, or health IT, suggests a strictly digital approach to patient care.

The reality is that health IT focuses as much on personal, physical interaction between patients, their medical records and their healthcare providers as it does the recording of data online.

Health IT is actually a culling of various documents specific to individual patients:

  • EHRs – An electronic health record is essentially a digital file cabinet of a patient’s medical records previously maintained in paper form by primary care physicians, hospital doctors and other providers. Maintaining these files online, as opposed to a physical location, allows for easier and better access. Doctors can log on and see information from anywhere, not just their office. Also, when necessary, information can be shared more quickly and efficiently.
  • PHRs – A personal health record is exactly that, a more personal detailing by a patient of specific information that can enable and assist health providers in prescribing care. Such data can include documents of food and calorie intake, daily exercise and vital statistics such as blood pressure and blood sugar levels.
  • PACs and VNAs – PACs (picture archiving and communication systems) and VNAs (vendor neutral archives) refer to the electronic storage and management of medical images, including radiology, cardiology and neurology.
  • E-prescribing – Many doctor visits end with a physician prescribing one or more medications. In the past, those paper prescriptions had to be taken by a patient from the provider’s office to a pharmacy. Digital prescriptions allow doctors to directly talk to pharmacies, ensuring that patients get the correct medication and dosage.

Health IT also can include other electronic resources, such as eHealth applications that can be downloaded to a smart phone or mobile device, and online health communities that allow instantaneous connection and communication with other individuals experiencing similar symptoms or health-related issues.

National Health IT Movement

Health IT also refers to the national effort currently underway to create a uniform system that would allow healthcare providers across the U.S. to seamlessly upload, share, analyze and update medical information. This effort, initiated by the passage of the HITECH Act in 2009, is commonly discussed in terms of interoperability. Interoperability is the ability of medical providers, regardless of their location and computer system, to share data.

The ability to facilitate widespread dissemination of patient records, coupled with the increased threat of data breaches and the continued proliferation of mobile devices, has resulted in enhanced oversight and attention to health IT systems. Providers, third-party medical billers and other healthcare entities that interact with protected health information are subject to federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations, which mandates strict measures to protect patient privacy.

Federal officials have praised the creation of an electronic record management system as being integral to improving patient care, increasing health care quality and reducing the cost of receiving treatment.

Roadblocks to Health IT

The movement toward enhanced health IT has not been without hurdles, many of which involve efforts to ensure the interoperability of various provider networks in every U.S. state, regardless of location. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) has established a detailed roadmap for national implementation by the year 2024 despite the continued challenge of adopting accepted data interchange standards and safeguards.

Creating a national health IT system has led some providers to complain that the technological push has hindered and/or distracted them from the core priority of maintaining patient health. Advocates, however, argue that such a system will be incredibly beneficial in providing critical data that can be used to effectively identify and manage large-scale population health issues, awhile also helping to reduce instances of certain chronic health conditions that are expensive to treat.

The Impact of Policy

A New England Journal of Medicine article considered how government policy and private-sector ingenuity have helped maintain momentum in the national push for better health IT.

The effort to allow patients better access to and control of their own health data began in earnest in 1994 with a project begun at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. More than 20 years later, access remains problematic despite increased federal regulation.

The NEJM article proposed four steps to improving the existing system:

  • Federal agencies such as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and private companies such as health insurance carriers offering incentives to healthcare providers to facilitate patient access to data
  • Federal policy further promoting a standardized system that speeds development of applications that both medical providers and patients can use
  • Regulatory agencies, working with researchers, assisting with establishment of consent channels to allow for the transfer of data between patient-controlled digital repositories
  • The healthcare industry as a whole looking to and learning from other industries that are more proficient in and have proven success with e-commerce to create an authentication framework that works.

Increasing Employment Through Health IT

Health IT as an industry is one of the fastest-growing job markets in the U.S. according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), with an estimated 22% growth expected through the year 2022. However, finding experienced and capable workers has proven difficult.

The variety of jobs available, however, is virtually unlimited.

For instance, health information technology workers are a critical component in developing and maintaining electronic medical and health record databases. The information that comes into those databases must be analyzed in order for recommendations to be made for improving the existing systems and establishing new protocols based on issues such as diagnosis trends. Such jobs aren’t strictly with providers but also with insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies and even medical supply manufacturers.

As the push toward a standardized system continues, coding experts are needed to assist providers in reclassifying medical data and ensuring existing data is properly logged. It’s estimated that the number of applicable medical codes will grow by more than 130,000 as more providers shift to the 10th revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems.

Even the national health IT effort itself is creating new positions. As more incentive programs are offered to providers to join a national health IT system, aimed at achieving CMS’ Meaningful Use compliance of electronic records, specialists are needed to ensure that participating providers meet numerous requirements for financial compensation.

Education a Key for Health IT

Preparing for a career in Health IT means interested individuals need to receive the right education.

Health information technologists work with medical records, accounts and surveys to meet legal and ethical guidelines, prevent errors and help improve efficiency. Such positions can require education from an associate’s degree to a master’s, as well as specific state certification.

The BLS estimates the median annual salary for a health information technician at about $37,110, with projected job growth of 15% through the year 2024.

While an associate’s degree can prepare an individual for entry-level work, a bachelor’s degree is necessary to move into administrative and management positions. Individuals who receive a master’s degree can qualify for upper-level management positions that help oversee the collection of medical data, billing and data coding.

Regardless of their educational level, health information technologists are required to be certified by the American Health Information Management Association. Some employers may require prospective employees to already be a credentialed and registered health information technician from an accredited two-year program.

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