Improving healthcare will require people having better information. That concept is generally agreed upon. The challenge is getting the right information to the right people at the right time. That is the interconnected goal of different facets of health information technology – from EMRs and PHRs, to health information exchanges.
People Are Complex
However, the complexity of medical care and individual variability – both human physiology and patient preferences – makes collecting and analyzing health information so that it is useful for individual clinical decisions much more difficult than presenting information about TVs, computers or cameras on a website such as CNET.
However, that distinction is not apparent to a friend of a friend who I had dinner with recently. This person told me how the internet will solve everything in healthcare by making quality information from patients available to everyone else so that drugs don’t need to be approved by the FDA and doctors don’t need to be licensed. He also believes that this full access to information from other people about the quality of every health care option – from specific medicines to individual surgeons – will make health insurance unnecessary, since people will be able to decide what they want to pay for based upon how high a quality of care they want to obtain.
As a polite dinner guest of a friend I didn’t argue with his Libertarian perspectives. Rather I tried to point out the complexity of analyzing health information because of different patient specific factors, and why risk adjustment is very difficult in assessing the quality of any healthcare option. For example, I mentioned the piece I wrote last winter about a study of different assessments of hospital quality in Massachusetts, and how this showed the difficulty of exactly what this person believed should be easy and currently possible, e.g. if you were a patient in Massachusetts trying to decide which hospital you should go to for a specific condition, how would you decide. As I noted then, the different quality assessments came to conflicting conclusions.
Profit Seeking Isn’t Always A Good Thing
I also noted how the profit motive can lead unscrupulous people to sell fake medicines that can actually do more harm than no treatment at all – such as fake anti-malarial pills containing aspirin, which don’t treat the malaria but do reduce the fever so people think they are getting better. Similarly, the concept of modern snake oil salesmen taking advantage of people’s hope was reinforced by a recent cartoon in the New Yorker showing two people looking at a display of pill bottles adorned with a sign saying “As seen on TV,” and the caption reads, “The active ingredient is marketing.”
However, I found my insights didn’t make much of an impression, and I did make a faux pas by pointing out that there was $1.1 Billion in last year’s stimulus bill for research to get more of this type of information and make it available to people. Unfortunately, this fact only elicited a shaking head in hands response which I took as his disgust at more wasted government/taxpayer money.
“Living is Easy With Eyes Closed, Misunderstanding All You See”
While for those of us not blinded by the limited wonders of computers and the internet, and who understand the complexity of actual healthcare decisions and analyses, the challenge is communicating this reality to people who believe that the internet is rapidly solving all our information problems…… As a society our goal should be to convey this knowledge to people before they or a family member becomes seriously ill – at which point the complexity of making healthcare decisions will be immediate and personal. And just as there are no atheists in foxholes, people facing serious life altering medical decisions want validated and reliable information, not subjective, anonymous opinions from the internet – which may be fine for picking a restaurant, but is certainly problematic for picking a surgeon or a medicine.