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Taking the Public's Pulse on Health IT

September 4, 2009
by David Raths
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For obvious reasons those of us who think and write about health information technology for a living spend most of our time talking to CIOs and other experts immersed in the field. But it also can be valuable to talk to friends, family members and neighbors about their perceptions of the push for a national health information network to see how the idea is permeating the culture in general.

A vacation or long weekend like Labor Day can provide a great way to get away from the phone, e-mail and online meetings and engage in these conversations. Another way is to move and have your cable company screw up the installation schedule of the wiring for your new home office. That's what happened to me this past week.

Being suddenly unplugged for four days made me angry at first, but after a while I found the peace and quiet kind of enjoyable. (I especially didn't miss the cable TV and almost want to tell them not to bother setting it up when they finally do show up.)

I used the down time to chat with new neighbors as well as some friends and tennis buddies. It's always interesting to gauge their reaction when I tell them I write about health IT issues for a living.

One of the first things I notice is that many people aren't aware that the stimulus bill contained so much money and has generated so much activity. President Obama has referred to health IT in several speeches, but I would guess most people couldn't describe many details about what is happening.

But many people are eager to give their opinions about healthcare reform in general. Although the majority here in Philadelphia voted for Obama and support insurance reforms, they voice skepticism about the claims that health IT investments are going to lead to greater efficiencies and help bring costs down. "Make the argument that this is worth investing in," one friend said, "but don't tell me it's going to eliminate waste or fraud. They have never done that before."

Perhaps having experienced a few failed software projects in their own work, they have doubts about one so large being successful. When I describe what regional, state and federal health information exchange groups are trying to accomplish, their jaws drop and they give the impression that they don't really believe it's possible.

Most people I speak with also don't know whether their own physician's office has started using EHRs or not. And although they would like access to their personal health information online, they have come to expect less from health providers than from banks, airlines and Netflix.

When I told her I wrote for Healthcare Informatics, my own physician, who is in an independent, two-person practice, gave the impression that she hoped to avoid going electronic as long as possible. You might think I should look for another doctor, yet I think she is the best primary care doc I have ever had. And I can understand her reluctance to invest the time and money on the difficult changeover in her small office.

My circle of acquaintances is small and not meant to describe a sampling of public opinion. I don't know if polling has been done on the public's ideas about health information exchange. But I think it's important for all of us to step back every once in a while and try to understand the perceptions of people who don't work in the field every day — and to engage our own physicians about their experiences.

What kind of reactions have you had from family and friends when describing the flurry of activity in your field?

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