Technological advances, which today seem to occur at a breakneck pace, impact just about every aspect of our lives. Technology has altered how we communicate, how we get our entertainment and how we receive our information. The field of health care is no exception to these rapid changes, and technology is impacting the delivery of health care in ways that were unforeseen just a few years ago.
“Health care has always benefitted from technological advances,” says Dr. James Parker, an Internal Medicine and primary care physician. “The practice of medicine has depended on new discovery and scientific breakthroughs to provide better care for patients for thousands of years. From the invention of the magnifying glass in the 13th century, which helped correct farsightedness, to the invention of the x-ray machine in the late 1800’s, health care has consistently evolved through the years.”
The last 100 years in particular have seen a remarkable acceleration in technological advancements in health care. The pacemaker, dialysis, cardiac defibrillation, MRI machine, CT scan, organ transplants and joint replacements were all procedures and tools that were likely unimaginable to doctors a century ago.
Between these advances, new medicines and increased knowledge of the human body, life expectancy has increased dramatically: in 1929, the overall life expectancy of a resident of the United States was 57.1 years; in 2012 life expectancy was at an all-time high of 78.8 years. That means in a period of just over 80 years, the length of the average American’s life has increased by more than 21 years – nearly a generation.
So what can we look forward to next? And how is technology impacting our health care today? Here’s a look at a few of the technological advances that are impacting many aspects of medicine and ones Texas Health Care physicians are using to improve patient care.
Electronic Health Records
Texas Health Care physicians were early adopters of electronic health records (EHRs), achieving a “meaningful use” designation from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in 2011. CMS created the meaningful use criteria as a way to incentivize health care providers to not just use new technology to maintain patient records, but to use it to improve patient outcomes and save health care dollars.
According to CMS, electronic health records can benefit both patients and health care providers in the following ways:
- Efficiency – patients’ health information is available when and where it is needed. Prescriptions can be ordered and filled before leaving the doctor’s office and insurance claims can be filed immediately.
Improved health care – patient information is always up-to-date, even including prescriptions and treatments prescribed by another provider. Also, instructions and reminders can be sent to the patient automatically.
Improved safety – an EHR contains a record of the patient’s current prescriptions or allergies, and it will automatically check for potential risks when a new medication is prescribed.
Reduced costs – less paperwork, improved safety, reduced duplication of testing, and overall improved health means reduced costs for both the patient and health care provider.
Texas Health Care partners with NextGen Healthcare, an industry leader in healthcare technology, to maintain its patients’ electronic health records. “Patient safety has improved with the widespread use of EHRs,” says Dr. Norman Davenport, an Internal Medicine and primary care physician. “As an example, the ability of the system to automatically flag an allergy or conflicting prescription when prescribing medication is a valuable tool that is enormously beneficial to both patients and doctors.”
Another benefit of EHRs is that they reduce the cumbersome and time-consuming process of one physician manually sending patient records by mail or fax to another physician. If your Texas Health Care primary care physician refers you to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist, that ENT will be able to access your medical records electronically instead of waiting for a stack of paper to be sent. The ENT can then enter his notes on the electronic record for the primary care physician to see, saving time and money on both ends.
Texas Health Care patients also have access to the Patient Portal, a secure online platform in which they can schedule appointments, view health care reminders, request prescription refills, view lab results and more. The Patient Portal allows the patient to access information about their health care anytime; they are no longer limited to the hours and days the doctor’s office is open.
“Most of us are generally at work during the hours our doctors’ offices are open and it can be easy to forget to make that phone call to request a refill on a prescription,” says Dr. Tahir Ali, an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. “With Patient Portal, you can do it at home in the evening or on the weekend. It just creates a lot more flexibility and convenience for the patient.”
Naturally, some patients wonder about the security of their health records in an electronic system. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA) mandates that patient health information be protected and kept confidential. All EHR systems must demonstrate they have rigorous security features in place to guard against a breach and violation of HIPPA. Just as the financial sector employs the highest levels of security available to protect people’s privacy, so does the health care industry.
Telemedicine allows a physician to see a patient remotely, utilizing a secure, web-based platform. This tool is proving increasingly valuable, as certain geographic areas lack an adequate number of specialists or even primary care physicians. Telemedicine is also being employed in some schools, allowing a student to see a doctor when feeling ill, without the doctor having to be physically present.
Dr. Marc Dean, a Texas Health Care ENT, has utilized telemedicine in his practice for several years now. “If I am at the hospital for a surgery, but one of my patients has an emergency, technology now allows me to evaluate and treat that patient in my clinic on the same day,” Dr. Dean says.
For the patient, the experience is not particularly different than what it would be if seeing the doctor in person. A patient will come to the physician’s office, check in and be shown to an exam room. A nurse or medical assistant then conducts a physical exam using telemedicine-compatible diagnostic equipment. The equipment transmits the image to a high-definition monitor or television screen at the doctor’s location, affording a clear, detailed view that is often superior to what the doctor would see if examining the patient in person.
Telemedicine is not appropriate or practical for every situation, but its use is likely to be employed more often in the years ahead.
Other Evolving Medical Technologies
Every field of medicine continues to adapt, innovate and evolve with the goal of curing disease, lengthening lives, reducing pain and improving our overall health and well-being. Some of the technologies are infrastructure that improve the overall delivery of health care, such as electronic health records and telemedicine, while others will be found in your doctor’s office or the operating room. Here are just a few examples:
Robotic technology is playing an increasingly important role in some aspects of medical care. Surgical robots respond to the movements of a surgeon’s hands, allowing for the accuracy and judgment of a trained surgeon while also providing the ability to make smaller incisions than handheld instruments do.
A number of Texas Health Care physicians are trained in surgical robotics and have used it in their practices. “Robotics will likely play a bigger role in surgery in the years ahead, affording surgeons more precision than ever before,” says general surgeon Dr. Gary Alexander.
According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, “Nanoscience and nanotechnology are the study and application of extremely small things and can be used across all the other science fields, such as chemistry, biology, physics, materials science, and engineering.” And when they say extremely small, they are not kidding: nanoscience involves objects between one and 100 nanometers in size. To give you a sense of scale, a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick and one nanometer is the length a fingernail grows in a second!
Nanoscience and nanotechnology are advancing at a rapid pace. Scientists and physicians see a time in the not-too-distant future in which nanorobots could be deployed in the human body to repair cells at the molecular level and a nano device could circulate throughout the bloodstream, measuring everything from cholesterol levels to early signs of cancer.
The Possibilities Are Endless
When you consider the advances in healthcare and medicine over the last century, and especially over the last couple of decades, it is truly breathtaking. And when you think about what’s next, the possibilities really are endless. However, no matter what incredible technological advancements revolutionize medicine next, and no matter what wonder drugs come onto the market, there will never be a technology that supplants the important relationship which exists between the patient and physician.
“At the end of the day, patients have to be able to see a doctor to tell us what’s wrong and we have to have the trust and confidence of our patients for them to take our advice,” says Dr. Britton West, a colon and rectal surgeon. “No matter how much new technology enhances our ability to provide better care for our patients, the importance of the patient-doctor relationship will always be the same.”
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