Health, not Sick Care

IBM, a proponent of health care reform, wants the business community to work side by side with the medical community to transform the incentive systems, improve quality and reduce costs.

Finally, with reform efforts intensifying in the U.S., we are beginning to understand that a health care system that treats us only after we get sick is too high a price to pay both for the long term health of Americans and for our wallets.

Health care spending is now more than 17% of GDP. With our population aging, demand for care will increase. Obesity and chronic illnesses, such as diabetes, are reaching alarming rates among Americans of all ages. In a recent study, patients with chronic diseases, on average, had 38 physician visits and received 50 prescriptions in a single year.

Preventing illness is the better option to improve our quality of life and stem spiraling health care costs. Studies show that when someone has a comprehensive primary care provider as their usual source of care, their medical care costs one-third less and they have a 19% lower mortality rate.

Our government is recognizing that our ability to improve primary care and obtain better health outcomes are closely linked to meaningful reform. We've seen that prevention and wellness programs can reduce expensive emergency room care and free up doctors to spend more time with patients to keep them healthy.

The notion of comprehensive primary physician-based care that creates a "medical home" has also been proven to reduce a patient's medical bills because it avoids expensive, unnecessary medical tests and procedures. That's more crucial than ever: according to a study published online by the American Journal of Medicine, 60% of all bankruptcies in the United States in 2007 were driven by health care costs.

We're already seeing this new model of care in action around the U.S. For example, Community Care of North Carolina, which has medical homes for Medicaid patients, has reportedly reduced medical costs by $160 million per year, hospital admissions by 40%, and improved diabetes care by 15%.

Health care technology is also an important tool to connect critical health information and promote collaborative care. By integrating IT into patient care, many doctors and hospitals are delivering better care and achieving better results. Geisinger Health System, Kaiser Permanente, the Mayo Clinic and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center are examples of the quality that can be achieved by using an integrated, holistic approach to medicine. Digitized records may be just the stimulus we need to shift the focus of our entire system toward wellness and health and away from "sick" care.

Ultimately, the states will decide how the $20 billion in health care stimulus funds will be spent on this 21st century digital revolution, allowing small medical practices, clinics and hospitals to computerize and share medical records. This will drive demand for software and IT services as well for home medical devices, broadband, and related services. Given the stimulus bill, Michigan or Ohio could produce health technology versions of Silicon Valley, and jobs could be created in the U.S. for a long-term market opportunity.

So why does IBM care about improving primary care? We have 450,000 reasons to care about a national health care reform agenda. Counting employees, retirees and dependents, IBM spent $1.3 billion on health care alone in 2008. IBM is a leading proponent of health care reform and the ideal of creating a healthier America. The business community can and should work side by side with the medical community embracing this opportunity to jointly transform the incentive systems, improve quality, reduce costs and deliver new levels of integration that prompts true accountability at every level.

The ultimate goal of health care reform must be to improve the health of all Americans and help our health care system achieve clinical excellence. If we use the federal stimulus dollars well, we can create a smarter system that delivers better outcomes, a healthier society and lower medical bills. Now is the time to turn rhetoric into action and ideas into results.

Dan Pelino is general manager of IBM Global Health Care and Life Sciences. IBM is creating a more connected healthcare system that delivers better care with fewer mistakes, predicts and prevents diseases, and empowers people to make better choices. This includes integrating data so doctors, patients and insurers can share information seamlessly and efficiently. IBM also helps clients apply advanced analytics to improve medical research, diagnosis and treatment in order to improve patient care and help reduce healthcare costs. www.ibm.com/healthcare

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