Obamacare: Shining a Light on Dark Days in Heathcare Tech

By Whitney Phaneuf , written on July 6, 2012

From The News Desk

Entrepreneurs, developers, designers, listen up: Obamacare needs you, and it can't wait until 2014. Healthcare technology has to catch up, and quick, to be ready for 30 million Americans newly insured under Obamacare.

Within a week of the Supreme Court decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act, state governments have started issuing IT requests for proposals. Obamacare will require that states establish a new communication framework for the health insurance exchange, which must be fully certified and operational by January 1, 2014. The exchanges will differ from state-to-state, but should include online tools to verify patient eligibility and provide clarity of coverage and associated costs.

Beyond IT, technology will need to transform an industry where most of the action happens offline and on paper, a problem Obamacare stands to exacerbate. Entrepreneurs say some of the most dire needs include better communication tools for doctors and patients, finding a way to finally digitize medical records, and managing ever-increasing and disparate data.

If there was ever an industry desperate for innovation, it's healthcare. Finding a doctor often starts online, but getting an appointment and dealing with insurance usually requires a few time-consuming phone calls. Expect to wait three weeks for an appointment, only to go in, fill out a form (with an actual pen!), and finally talk to a doctor who scribbles notes on more paper. That doctor's office creates a record of the visit and it collects dust in a file cabinet.

ZocDoc co-founder Oliver Kharraz, MD says doctors will gladly trade their pen and paper for an iPad, when technology provides enough utility to warrant it. Apps from JiffPad and Orca Health have made early traction with doctors and patients. Kharraz says that under Obamacare, improved doctor and patient engagement will be critical. He anticipates more health-related social networking and crowdsourcing apps, as people seek information and have less one-on-one resources to help them navigate it.

Another challenge technology can assist, Kharraz says, will be the country's doctor shortage. The US needs 20,000 more doctors today, and he expects the demand to grow to 60,000 by 2014. With such a dearth of medical professionals, Zocdoc is focused on offering medical appointments online and on smartphones in real-time, so patient cancellations are instantly available to patients.

"Obamacare can reshape the entire industry. There are 1,400 plus different practice management systems and no dominent player. Doctors cannot afford to invest in a technology that slows them down," says Kharraz, adding that Siri or other voice command technologies could play a significant role.

There was a lot of talk in the mid-2000s about digitizing medical records, but it never happened. George W. Bush set a goal to get the majority of Americans on universal electronic medical records by 2010. Today, Kharraz says, we're in the low double-digit percentages. Most doctors and hospitals don't have the computers required to make the transition and, once paperless, an easy Web-based application will be necessary to power the data. Currently, medical records are disconnected between states and even among doctors who request files from one another on an as-need basis. No central repository of a medical history exists unless the patient decides to create one. The failure of Google Health shows that with no immediate incentive, most people don't care about tracking their medical history.

Connecting all the unstructured information -- from patient records to breaking research -- is where analytics company Atigeo hopes to swoop in. The company entered the healthcare vertical two years ago and is poised to launch its semantic search platform in October. Atigeo COO Christopher Burgess, who served 30 years within the Central Intelligence Agency, anticipates Obamacare will greatly increase patient data, and his company wants to help medical professionals make sense of it.

"Obamacare is shining a bright light on the big issues and companies are finally jumping in to do something about it," says Burgess. "I'm looking forward to the day when I won't have to carry around a USB with all my electronic medical records."

Whether it's ZocDoc bringing communication tools to patients and doctors, or Atigeo promising big data search capabilities, let's hope Obamacare sparks some smart ideas to solve the problems plaguing healthcare.

[Image courtesy aublogspot]