Microsoft CEO: Information technology offers huge promise for health care companies

The conditions are ripe for health care to embrace technology, an area where it lags at least a decade behind other major industries, says Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer.

“I’m optimistic. The money is coming. The national debate has been engaged. And now is the time where our industry may be able to step up with some enabling factors and make an even bigger difference,” Ballmer said.

Ballmer headlined a panel of health information technology executives who spoke Wednesday to a Nashville Health Care Council crowd about the role of technology in health care.

Ballmer’s one-day visit also included stops at the Nashville Technology Council’s annual membership breakfast and the Downtown YMCA, where he joined HCA Inc. Chairman Richard Bracken in announcing a $1.25 million donation to Middle Tennessee nonprofit agencies.

At the health care council luncheon, much of the discussion centered around opportunities for technology created by health care reform and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provides $44 billion for the advancement of health IT.

Agreeing with other panelists, Ballmer said health care, along with education, has the farthest to go in adopting technology. That’s particularly true of small physician practices and small hospitals where the majority of care is delivered, he said.

According to one oft-quoted statistic, half of all U.S. physicians practice in offices with fewer than 10 people. Yet adoption of electronic health records at that level hovers between 5 and 10 percent, compared to 40 percent for large hospitals.

“We look at the health care industry and say, ‘It’s not working.’ Yet more than most industries, it is all about information — getting the right information to the right person at the right time,” Ballmer said.

George Lazenby, CEO of Nashville-based medical billing service provider Emdeon, said $17 billion in federal incentives being offered to health care providers who switch from paper to electronic health records is already taking hold. The electronic prescribing side of Emdeon’s business is growing at a rate of 100 percent every year, Lazenby said.

“Whether or not dramatic, there is some evidence that this foundation of new solutions that the stimulus is creating is going to give us the opportunity to drive performance,” he said.

Glen Tullman, CEO of Chicago-based Allscripts Healthcare Solutions Inc., said his company’s sales are up 30 percent year-over-year, and e-prescribing is up 150 percent. Allscripts is a leading provider of clinical software, connectivity and information services to physicians.

“We think it’s just the beginning of this industry in terms of growth,” Tullman said.

So what does Nashville, with its broad community of health care businesses and investors, need to do to take advantage of the current climate in health IT?

“My No. 1 piece of advice is to start with the patient,” Ballmer said. “Start the dialogue with the physician with the patient’s perspective and the patient’s information in mind. It may not be the most rewarding in the short-term, but it’s the most transformational thing you’ll be able to do in the long run.”

Dr. Harry Greenspun, chief medical officer for health IT provider Perot Systems Healthcare Group, cautioned stakeholders from getting “bogged down” in complying with new regulations coming out of health reform and instead look for the opportunities it creates.

Said Greenspun: “Look at the type of innovation we’ll be capable of once we have the stuff in place and we’re actually able to do some very unique things to serve patients, to serve consumers and deliver care in very innovative ways.”


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