How health IT can reduce costs and improve employee productivity Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2010

Many health insurance carriers are looking at ways for their members to have online access to a database that contains their health information, since health information technology has been growing through the use of electronic medical records and other tools.

However, employers should be aware that some carriers can do more with these tools than others, says Michelle Richter, the director of sales for Kaiser Permanente.

“In our medical group, all of the physicians are connected to the same database, so the group can share information and use it to make decisions about the best care protocols for patients, which is something others can’t do,” says Richter. “A tool is just a tool until you use it to transform health care.”

Smart Business spoke with Richter about how health IT can positively affect a company.

How can health IT benefit employers?

The biggest benefit for employers is that health IT can help contain costs. An electronic medical record system by itself isn’t enough. The power comes from how physicians use this tool to share information to help improve patients’ health.

When a patient seeks care, their entire health history — all their information, everything you would expect in a paper chart — ends up in an electronic database. That database is connected to every physician, nurse and allied health professional in the system. As data is entered into the system, it can be accessed in real time.

If I’m at the doctor and he or she inputs information into my record, then I walk 20 feet down the hall to a pharmacist to fill a prescription, that pharmacist has already pulled up the same information the doctor entered minutes ago. The pharmacist doesn’t have to wait for the paper chart to be transferred and can access everything about me in real time.

Physicians can utilize this information to identify patterns and find the most effective ways to treat patients with certain conditions. Within minutes, the database can show every single diabetic patient with a hemoglobin count of 10 or higher, how they’re being treated and which doctors are achieving the best outcomes. This gets patients healthier more quickly and reduces costs for employers.

How can health IT benefit employees?

The biggest advantage is convenience. Employees who can access their medical records through a Web site can take care of a lot of their day-to-day health needs at their convenience. For example, members can schedule or cancel routine appointments, download and print their after-visit summary, print their kid’s immunization record for school, refill prescriptions and e-mail their doctors.

In some situations, e-mailing a doctor can replace an office visit, which means saving time and saving money on a copay.

How can health IT reduce presenteeism?

Presenteeism occurs when an employee is at work, but affected by something that causes them to not be fully productive. In many cases, it’s because they are dealing with a chronic condition: depression, asthma, etc.

Health IT allows a medical group to care for patients differently by understanding everything going on with them. Electronic medical records allow the doctors and patients to be connected throughout the day. If patients are having problems, they can ask questions and check in with their care team in other ways besides coming in for a visit. Electronic medical records also enable everyone on the patient’s care team to have the same up-to-date information regarding their care. So the member gets the support they need, even when one doctor is on vacation.

The idea is when you care for patients this way, when you have a team of people who all know what is going on, you’re going to get the patient healthier quicker and improve their outcomes so they are more productive at work.

Statistics show that approximately 50 percent of diabetics don’t get the care they need because their primary care physician and their specialists are not connected to each other. When you begin to connect health professionals who are collaborating to take care of a patient, outcomes improve. Therefore, presenteeism improves.

How can health IT help improve the prevention of diseases?

Health IT is designed to alert physicians as to when patients need preventive checkups, such as mammograms and colonoscopies. The systems are programmed in such a way that if I meet a certain age and have not come in for a preventive care exam, I will receive either a phone call or a letter in the mail letting me know it’s time to schedule the exam.

The only way to do that is by using IT. Medical groups don’t have a room full of people going through charts looking up birthdays, determining who they need to call. When you want to take care of a large amount of patients in a comprehensive way, you need a system that can help you do that.

How can health IT create a healthy work force?

By using health IT, the stored data can be used to produce reports to help employers understand what conditions in their employee base are causing the most claims and highest costs. As a result of being able to report that to them, the medical group can reach out to those employees on a more global basis because they have their information. Then, a wellness program can be developed with the entire employee base in mind — a comprehensive program that includes education about certain diseases or lifestyle choices, like smoking.

The employer can then receive reports and determine where the employees are and where they need to go. Quarterly reports show how the health of the entire employee population is improving. This can only be done because of the ability to pull that information out of the database. The wellness programs are not IT based, but they are a result of the information received from the IT system.

Michelle Richter is the director of sales for Kaiser Permanente. Reach her at (440) 449-6800 or michelle.l.richter@kp.org.