In a time when just about everyone has decried health care’s staggering costs, Northern Kentucky University’s new College of Informatics seeks to lead in modernizing the health care delivery system through technology.
It’s a massive mission in its very early stages. But it’s one that, if successful, could make everything from billing to personal medical record-keeping more efficient and accessible. Proponents believe it will save money and time for businesses, insurers, medical personnel, hospitals and other health care players.
So what exactly is informatics? Essentially, NKU’s Dean of Informatics Dr. Douglas Perry explains, “It’s the overlap of technology and content and people.”
To explain it further, imagine if you could access your lifelong medical history online, as you can now with your bank account. Or imagine you could pay your medical bills online. What if your brand new doctor (with your permission) had immediate access to your entire medical history, allowing her to better tailor treatment specifically for you? That, and more, is what the health care informatics industry is set to do.
“The big push is for electronic health records and personal health records. We want to bring hospitals into the 21st century. Banking is 20 years ahead of health care in informatics. These electronic health record systems can be used by hospitals and others, by third party-payers, billers (and others),” said Perry.
Health care still paper based
The vast majority of hospital transactions still take place on paper. This results in numerous inefficiencies and mistakes like double billing, late payment collection and less responsive health care delivery, Perry says. These technological advances could essentially wipe out many of these problems and potentially drive down health care costs, which has many in the insurance industry on board.
Kentucky government is leading the push with legislative funding approved for a new NKU College of Informatics Center, and legislative approval of new related coursework. NKU is on the ground floor of a state goal to create a statewide e-health network to improve health care efficiency and quality though utilizing this type of technology.
“An obvious way (to create efficiency) is through billing. The average reimbursement for services is about six months. How would you be doing if you had to wait six months to get paid? And the average recovery rate of accounts is way down compared to many other businesses. Part of this is the profound inefficiencies in billing,” Perry said.
He is overseeing NKU’s ambitious informatics program, which seeks to combine technology, available data and real-world application to a wide variety of occupations, not only health care. NKU’s College of Informatics, the only such college in the state, was created by an act of the Kentucky Legislature. And in the fall of 2006, 1,057 entered the college under various disciplines.
Few programs nationally
In addition to new offerings like informatics, the college puts a number of NKU’s existing disciplines under one roof. It includes four departments: Business, Communication, Computer Science and Infrastructure Management.
It includes such diverse disciplines as journalism, health care, computer programming and research development design. It’s one of less than a dozen such colleges dedicated specifically to informatics study in the United States.
Currently NKU offers a master’s of health informatics, designed for working professionals in the health care field. It covers health care technology, process management, regulatory and ethical issues and organizational culture of health care. The university also offers a 12-credit-hour graduate certificate in health informatics, open to those with a bachelor’s degree. It offers training in the technical side of health informatics including database management and research methods.
William Hacker, state commissioner for public health, said many states now are following the Kentucky model, forming their own e-health boards. Kentucky’s process could take several years to see results, but electronic health records could provide drastic cost-cutting for health care providers, and the state, by eliminating duplicate and unnecessary tests among other inefficiencies associated with a paper-based system.
“In health care, the more efficient you are, the more you can decrease overhead. Then those savings are translated to your customers, either the business purchasing insurance or someone paying for services, as well as the healthcare provider,” Hacker says.
The state also provided funding for a new state-of-the-art Center for Informatics building at NKU that will have the most recent research and computer labs, as well as performance and conference space and a “digitorium” or digital media area. Currently, 90 percent of the informatics college is in the renovated Science and Technology building.
This new building is set to open in 2010, with a projected total cost of more than $50 million. The legislature has approved $35.5 million. The rest will come from a mix of grants, private, government and corporate funding.
“We are very confident we will be able to meet that fund-raising goal,” Perry says.
At least some of the college’s goals aren’t too far into the future. Already Google and Microsoft are pioneering in developing and promoting electronic health record systems. And the federal government has mandated a national health infrastructure, which would include e-Health records, be in place by 2014.
“The big trend in health care will be in e-health. This is a huge part of the agenda for health care in the future,” Dr. Perry says.