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Our booming health IT industry

By Kathleen Sebelius

Las Vegas Review-Journal
February 22, 2012

This week, Las Vegas will welcome thousands of doctors, entrepreneurs and leading health technology executives to town as it hosts America's largest annual health IT conference. In doing so, the city will get a firsthand look at one of the untold economic success stories of the past three years: America's emerging health IT industry and the policies that set it in motion.

Today, America is witnessing an unprecedented wave of innovation in health IT. Over the past three years, the share of primary care doctors switching to electronic health records has almost doubled from 20 percent to 39 percent, and it's on pace to exceed 50 percent by the end of the year. Soon, more than 100 million Americans will be able to access their health information with just a few clicks of their mouse.

Behind this progress is a rapidly growing American health IT industry. Since 2009, more than 50,000 health IT jobs have been created. Hundreds of new products have been developed, mostly by small companies with 50 or fewer employees. And venture capital investment in health IT is up more than 60 percent.

Just three years ago, any of this would have been hard to imagine. While Americans had been hearing big promises about health IT for decades, few had experienced the benefits in their own lives.

It's not that people didn't see the value of new health technologies. Leading hospitals such as the Mayo Clinic had used electronic health records for decades to coordinate care, reduce medical errors and cut costs. And few doctors or patients who had benefited from new technologies longed to return to the days of musty cabinets and misplaced paper files.

But there were numerous roadblocks standing in the way of innovation. Providers who wanted to switch to electronic health records faced prohibitive upfront costs, plus the challenge of learning a new technology. Developers who wanted to, say, create a new tool to help consumers choose a doctor often found it difficult to get their hands on the data they needed to do it.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle of all was the economics of our health care system itself, which rewarded increases in the quantity of care, not improvements in its quality.

Meanwhile, competitors around the world were happily taking the lead. For a while, it seemed possible that when the digital health revolution finally did arrive in America, it would be in the form of technologies developed and manufactured overseas.

Within a month after taking office, President Obama took action to get America's health IT industry up to speed. To reduce the barriers slowing the adoption of electronic health records, he signed legislation creating new incentives and supports to help doctors and hospitals make the switch. And working with industry, common standards were adopted to ensure that information could be safely shared between different systems.

To give innovators fuel for new applications and services, our department liberated information previously been trapped in the vaults of government -- from local health performance statistics to Medicare data about health care provider quality and more.

And under the 2010 health care law, we began to change the incentives of our health care system so that a hospital whose patients get better faster and go home sooner doesn't go broke. As a result, a powerful business case for health care innovation is emerging.

The results have been incredible. In just three years, we've seen electronic health record adoption numbers that were nearly flat for years begin to take off. Investors who had previously focused on other sectors and countries are now devoting themselves to developing better tools for American doctors and patients. And America's health IT industry is thriving, creating tens of thousands of good jobs.

Just as important, we are finally getting a glimpse of what a fully wired health care system could mean for America's health. For patients, it could mean being able to enter your blood sugar levels from home electronically for your doctor to monitor in real time. For providers, it could mean getting an automatic reminder every time a patient is due for a screening. For our health care system as a whole, it promises to reduce the errors and duplicate tests that drive up costs.

There's no force more powerful for creating jobs and improving lives than American ingenuity. And as our experience with health IT shows, it often takes entrepreneurs and government working together to unleash that force to its full potential.

Kathleen Sebelius is the secretary of Health and Human Services.