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Sun 29 Jan 2006 04:00 AM

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Hospitals prescribed IT

The Middle East healthcare sector needs to speed up its adoption of IT if it is to reduce costs, boost efficiencies and leverage new technologies that can enhance patient care in the region. Colin Edwards looks at what is needed.

|~|sgandhi200.jpg|~|Gandhi: Our role is to make sure that the latest technologies can get adopted faster. |~|Hospitals and clinics in the Middle East can reduce costs by some 30% by making better use of IT. That's the message Intel's Sharad Gandhi, Director Digital Health Platform delivered to regional health ministries and the healthcare sector last month.

Gandhi bases his claims on Gartner research in the US, which found that such cost reductions are possible if the full benefits of IT are realised. But to get such benefits there is still a lot of work to be done on process standardisation within the healthcare sector, he warns.

"Processes differ from hospital to hospital and country to country making it very difficult to get the sort of benefits available from IT. Each hospital has its own way of logging and storing information, so if, for example, a patient has to be moved from one hospital to another, it's virtually impossible to transfer the data automatically. It inevitably has to be re-entered. It's very inefficient.

"We're driving the move to standardised processes as well as issues such as privacy, security, communication and data ownership in healthcare," he says.

Gandhi was in the region to get a better understanding of healthcare needs on the ground as well as to meet with health ministries and hospitals to ensure the message on IT's role in healthcare is considered at an early stage.

"Healthcare needs here are quite different to those in Europe where the focus is on an aging population, so I'm spending my time here to get a better understanding of the healthcare sector in the region," says Gandhi.

"There's tremendous growth in the sector throughout the region, so as a company, we believe it's important to explain how new technologies - not just our own - can be used in healthcare to benefit all players - the patient, the health insurers and the hospitals."

Intel, which formed a focused healthcare group last year, sees healthcare as a sector likely to experience one of the largest growths in IT adoption going forward and Gandhi wants to make sure the industry is aware of the what IT can bring to healthcare - a sector he says has been relatively slow in adopting and leveraging IT.

"We're seeing increasing interest in the use of technology in healthcare. It's being driven by the need to reduce costs, increase efficiencies and reduce human errors when patient data is input or transferred to systems," he says.

The fact that healthcare is late to widespread technology adoption compared with other sectors such as finance or manufacturing, means that it will be able to benefit from technologies and processes that have already been proven in other sectors and so came with a lower cost of entry. He was referring to solutions such as asset management, automation and even outsourcing.

Bringing assets under control is critical in the healthcare sector, but hospitals have been slow to realise its importance, he says.

"Take an operating theatre as an example. They can cost US$10,000 a minute to run so obviously planning patient flow is important. If you can schedule 20 people for theatre a day instead of 15, then obviously there are big savings to be made," says Gandhi.

Automation was also key for greater accuracy and he sees upcoming RFID (radio frequency identification) and Wimax (high speed wireless) technologies playing a key role here. All a patient's data can be stored on an RFID tag worn by a patient to ensure accurate treatment, while he sees Wimax being used as a means for ambulances to convey emergency patient data to a hospital en route.

Because of the cost of in-hospital care and a patient's wish to return home as quickly as possible, Intel researchers are working on using sensor networks that use RFID tags to help monitor the daily activities of patients at home. A network could track a person's movements throughout a house, feed relevant data, such as blood pressure readings, back to the hospital and remind patients to take medicines. Intel is working on a digitised pill box that can tell when someone takes pills.

Outsourcing was a workable and cost effective solution that other industrial sectors have already proven and healthcare could do likewise, he adds. Automobile insurers, for example, were using outsourced services to process and approve claims. There is nothing stopping hospitals doing the same when it comes to X-ray assessments. Available technology enables scans to be sent to a specialist outsourced service provider for interpretation, he says.

The same technology also enables a wider adoption of telemedicine, whereby specialists or surgeons located in another country can monitor a local operation.
"Some of the best doctors in the world practice in the Middle East, but often patients want to seek a second expert medical opinion, particularly for potentially serious conditions," says Dr Delos Cosgrove, CEO and president of the Cleveland Clinic.

"Our online service increases the ease with which patients and their physicians can access medical opinions from doctors at one of America's most respected academic medical institutions."

Patients across the Middle East can seek specialised second medical opinions for more than 600 life-threatening or life-altering diagnoses. The second opinions are rendered by Cleveland Clinic physicians specialising in each diagnoses. They can provide patients with the information they need to make important treatment choices. Using the online service can be quite fast and detailed second opinions are typically given within five to seven working days.

Online registration takes between 30-45 minutes, eliminating the time delays often associated with waiting for an appointment. After submittal of all the necessary records by a patient or their physician, a specialist at the Clinic creates a permanent record for the patient and reviews all materials.

A registered nurse coordinates the online service and patients are able to stay in touch with a staff member at The Cleveland Clinic at all times. Patients are asked to complete a general and disease-specific questionnaire online and send films or studies via registered mail. Assistance is available every step of the way to ensure patient satisfaction and quality service.||**||

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