Editorial: You, Too, Can Drive Healthcare Efficiency

I recently downloaded the iPhone app iTriage, just to be able to manage my health needs while on the go.

Little did I know that I would hear HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius extoll iTriage's benefits at Datapalooza 3. The app is among new tools that seek to mine healthcare data for innovation and progress.

What does an iPhone app have to do with packaging, and why should you care? I’ll admit, it is a bit of a stretch. But its potential to transform what Sebelius called “lazy data” into an application that could help improve care and reduce costs intrigues me. And its portability offers so much data to patients on demand. As the digital age begins transforming healthcare, I wonder how pharmaceutical and medical device packaging can also support such efficiency, access, and portability.

We’ve all got a lot of work ahead of us. During her keynote address at Datapalooza, Sebelius lamented that despite amazing progress in medicine, a “huge innovation gap in healthcare” remains. There is “little progress in other areas . . . from how patients track and manage their own health, to how they choose a doctor, to how doctors work together to develop a treatment plan,” she said. Instead, “we have massive inefficiencies in our healthcare system that harm our health, waste doctors’ time, drive up costs for families, businesses, and governments. And these inefficiencies contribute to other healthcare challenges.”

Historically there hasn’t been much incentive for efficiency, since improving healthcare historically meant less reimbursement for the system. Financial incentives to reward improvement and innovation were needed, Sebelius said. “Because Medicare and Medicaid together cover about 100 million Americans—one in three—we had to start with those systems, and that’s exactly what we have done through The Affordable Care Act,” she said. Part of the plan includes a national transition to electronic health records (EHRs). “We knew that electronic health records are a key platform for healthcare innovation. They put up-to-date information in the hands of doctors and patients with potentially huge health benefits. A recent study of more than 27,000 adults with diabetes found that those with electronic health records were 600% more likely to get the right care. [A] 600% improvement!”

Sebelius acknowledged high upfront costs and other challenges, so the government has been using funds from America’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act to encourage adoption. Today, “three years later, twice as many hospitals and primary doctors are using EHRs,” she said, “and that trajectory is just going to grow. And with smart phones accounting for more than half of all phones sold in the United States, we are seeing an unprecedented expansion of all platforms that can support new health innovations.” Hence the iTriage app I downloaded.

So back to packaging. Electronic health records need consistently accurate inputs that only automated product identification can bring. And I’ll bet that manual prescribing, repackaging, and manual recordkeeping are all processes that contribute to the inefficiencies that Sebelius mentioned. Instead, repackaging should be minimized and product identification should be automated throughout the entire healthcare system, from the supply chain to the hospitals and pharmacies to the patient. Not only will most processes be standardized for efficiency, but many medical errors could be avoided.

Imagine this scenario—a doctor prescribes a drug using a handheld device that automatically records the prescription in the patient’s EHR and transmits it to the pharmacy. The patient receives a bar coded (or other Auto-ID enabling) package and uses a smart phone to learn more about the product and begin tracking compliance. The patient could record symptoms and compliance and could even transmit such data back to the doctor. (Smart packaging could even play the role of the smart device.) Should that patient experience side effects or worse yet need emergency care, there could be alerts sent to the doctor or an electronic record in place for emergency department personnel.

This may sound a little too invasive for some. But chronically ill patients, which make up the bulk of the healthcare system’s expense, could truly benefit from such connectivity.

Daphne Allen, Editor

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