A Global Village
Issue 4 » iHealth

Enabling E—Health

A Revolution for Informatics in Health Care

Simon Kennedy & Benjamin Berk, The Boston Consulting Group

Health care costs are growing at an unsustainable rate throughout much of the world. In response, many governments are taking steps to prod the health care industry to aggressively expand its use of IT. The potential long-term benefits to all parties, measured in cost savings and improved medical outcomes, will be vast. But the near- to intermediate-term disruption to the industry will be significant, translating into both costs and opportunities for industry players and the entire health-care ecosystem.

As a key part of their efforts to contain surging health-care costs and improve the quality of care, governments around the world have launched major initiatives to spur health care players to embrace IT. In the US, for example, the 2009 Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act – a combination of regulations and financial incentives for health care providers (including $36 billion to propel the expanded use of electronic medical records) – became effective this year. China’s government, which has committed to a massive $125 billion overhaul of that country’s health-care system, has identified the expanded use of IT as an essential part of its campaign and has instituted measures to spur investment and compliance. Sweden is seeing the fruit of its investments in the development of patient-outcomes data registries and has committed additional funding to further the registries’ coverage1. And the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recently commissioned its first-ever e-health strategy.

For the health care industry – which, despite being arguably the most information-intensive industry in the world, has been slow to join the digital revolution – the transition will be a sea change. The potential long-term benefits to all parties, measured by cost savings and improved medical outcomes, will be vast. But the near- to intermediate-term disruption to the industry will be significant, translating into both costs and opportunities for industry players and the entire health-care ecosystem.

Here we discuss factors driving the unprecedented investment in so-called health care informatics, the progress to date, and why the revolution is, we believe, sustainable.

An Industry Ripe for Change
First, it is important to understand that the health care industry, which represents approximately $5.5 trillion, or 8%, of the global economy, is itself made up of multiple industries. These can be grouped into the following categories:

Innovative suppliers, or the biopharmaceutical and medical-devices companies that develop new diagnostics and treatments and invest tens of billions of dollars annually in R&D

Payers, or the insurance companies, third-party administrators, government agencies, and large employers that pay for the vast majority of health care

Providers, or the doctors, nurses, and other health-care professionals who provide care in hospitals, private offices, and other settings

Other supporting infrastructure players, including medical-equipment companies, disease-management outsourcers, and pharmacy benefits managers

In the US, for example, there are an estimated 5,795 hospitals (according to the American Hospital Association), 800,000 physicians (World Health Statistics 2010), 1,300 private health-insurance companies (America’s Health Insurance Plans), and many thousands of smaller participants.

Globally, health care
costs are rising at an
unsustainable rate,
one that significantly
exceeds both GDP growth and growth
in household incomes

Globally, health care costs are rising at an unsustainable rate, one that significantly exceeds both GDP growth and growth in household incomes. According to Plunkett Research, the US health-care system, for example – by far the world’s most expensive – now consumes about 18% of US GDP, with its costs having risen fully three times faster than economic growth over the past two decades. For most other countries, the problem is less severe but still significant, with health care costs for several major Western countries (such as France and the UK) consuming as much as 10% of GDP and rising at roughly twice the rate of economic growth.

Rapidly rising costs might be justifiable if they were accompanied by commensurate gains in efficiency or the quality of care. But that is the exception rather than the rule. Numerous studies have shown that higher spending does not necessarily translate into improved patient outcomes. And most countries’ health-care systems are plagued by a considerable amount of waste. In the US, for example, an estimated $700 billion of the $2.5 trillion spent annually on health care is considered wasted, the result of overtreatment, fraud, abuse, and error.

Many of the problems that plague health care systems have a common thread: they are largely attributable to a lack of timely, accurate information, including clinical information about patients (such as past diagnostic images and lab results) and decision-support tools for physicians (such as information about potential adverse drug reactions). Improving the accuracy and timeliness of information across health care systems could considerably improve patient outcomes while materially reducing costs. For innovative suppliers, such as biopharmaceutical companies, access to larger, broader datasets and real-time data could translate into a range of benefits, including the following:

Powerful new ways to identify and recruit patients for clinical trials, dramatically speeding the time to trial completion

New simulation tools, enabling elimination of some in vivo trials altogether

An enhanced ability to track and target marketing efforts to prescription-drug users

A stronger foundation for outcomes analysis and decision making

A greater ability to monitor user outcomes and meet rising pharmacovigilance standards while also improving compliance and the return on investment (ROI) of health care spending on pharmaceuticals

For payers, the benefits of enhanced information flows are equally compelling and would including the following:

Minimization of duplicative and unnecessary testing and diagnostic imaging

Less fraud

Improved ordering processes for prescriptions and lab tests, leading to a reduction in associated administrative costs and substantially reducing the tens of thousand of adverse drug interactions per year (and their associated medical expenses)

Providers have historically derived the least value among industry participants from improved information flows. This is because, in many systems, providers are paid via a fee-for-service, or flat-salary, model, which gives them little incentive to improve the quality of care or the management of outcomes. Instead, most providers have focused their efforts on measuring “inputs,” such as procedures performed or visits. In many advanced economies, this structural issue, which translates into both direct costs and opportunity costs, is exacerbated when multiple providers treat a single patient, which increases the number of handoffs and the opportunities for communication failure.

Improving the accuracy and
timeliness of information
across health care systems
could considerably improve
patient outcomes while
materially reducing costs

As the study and science of comparative effectiveness become more mature, however, more and more health-care systems are rethinking their practices and revamping their economics to give providers a stake in outcomes, not just inputs. Providers thus have increasing incentives to invest in outcomes-enhancing IT systems, which can deliver several advantages:

1. A lower incidence of medical errors, leading to fewer adverse events and disputes and ultimately fewer demands on the health care system

2. Increased “evidence-based” medical decision-making coupled with automated record generation, leading to lower billing costs through improvements in adjudication of reimbursements

3. Better clinical-decision support, improving the quality of outcomes and reducing the very high number of errors currently occurring in many hospitals

4. Greater empowerment of patients over their own care, and improved patient adherence to clinical recommendations

Given the number and range of potential benefits to all parties, including patients, any serious effort to control health care costs and improve outcomes must necessarily focus on information management – as governments and many industry participants are now doing.

IT Is the Key
Ongoing advances in health care informatics are allowing health care providers, payers, and other industry participants to access richer, more accurate data than they could in the past. These data include real-time clinical data (for example, electronic medical records and patient-outcome registries), real-time clinical workflows (such as clinical decision support and provider-ordering systems at the point of care), continuously updated content knowledge (including evidence-based guidelines), and real-time claims data (for encounter and prescription claims adjudication). And informatics will allow the industry to use the data in ways that could have a truly transformative effect on health care.

A case in point is the potential impact of data on the pursuit of value-based health care (VBHC), a concept introduced several years ago by Michael Porter and Elizabeth Teisberg2. VBHC is based on the premise that the goal of any health-care reform should not be simply to lower costs, or to improve outcomes at any cost. Rather, it should be to maximize value divided by costs, with “value” defined as quality and measured on the basis of data such as hospital readmission rates or diabetes control.

This pursuit is, by definition, highly information-intensive. Health care providers and payers must be able to aggregate and analyse volumes of data to determine which treatment approaches are likely to yield the best, most cost-effective care. While this sets the bar very high in terms of implementation (given the size of the industry), a number of countries are already starting to build the infrastructure and processes necessary to support a value-based approach – with advances in health care informatics a key enabler.

Sweden is a prominent example. While it has not created a full-scale version of VBHC, the country has made great strides toward surmounting one of the largest challenges – obtaining timely and reliable data. Over the past several decades, the country’s health-care sector, aided by the government, has developed a number of disease registries, which are vast repositories of data on outcomes for patients undergoing specific types of treatments, such as hip replacement surgery. The information gathered has helped providers identify value-based treatment protocols – procedures that have a much higher ROI and are safer – and adjust them to specific patient populations, enabling better, more cost-effective care while eliminating unnecessary and ineffective treatments. The success of the program to date is reflected in any number of metrics, including a recent study that found Sweden to have the best health-care outcomes in Europe – a noteworthy feat, given that the country’s health-care costs as a percentage of GDP hover around the European average.

Value-based health
care is based on the
premise that the goal of
any health-care reform
should ... be to maximize
value divided by costs,
with “value” defined as
quality and measured
on the basis of data such
as hospital readmission
rates or diabetes control

Further advances in health care informatics will enable new applications and solutions across the entire health-care value chain. A range of health care players, IT providers, institutions, and vendors are working both independently and collaboratively to push the envelope. Exciting examples include the Partnership to Advance Clinical electronic Research (PACeR), a coalition of medical research centres, pharmaceutical companies, and health information technology organizations (current members include Pfizer, Merck, and Johnson & Johnson) that seeks to dramatically improve the speed and quality of clinical research necessary to develop new medicines; the Observational Medical Outcomes Partnership (OMOP), a public-private partnership among the US Food and Drug Administration, the US Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, and PhRMA (Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, whose members include leading US research-based biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies that aim to improve the monitoring of drugs for safety by upgrading techniques for mining existing health-care databases); and a partnership between IBM and ActiveHealth Management, an Aetna subsidiary, that is working to support physicians’ decision-making by leveraging cloud computing and advanced analytics to create detailed patient-health records.

Why Now Is Different for Health Care Informatics
Skeptics will point out that health care informatics has had several “false dawns” in the past and has failed to gain broad adoption. We believe, however, that the time is now for health care informatics to deliver on its promise. First, as noted, governments are “all in” in their commitment to advancing the use of IT in health care, making large investments and setting standards and regulations. Hence, there is a strong push that in the past has been lacking – along with a growing sense among industry participants that this is now inevitable.

Second, there is increasing evidence of the value of health care informatics, making the case for broader adoption even more compelling. For example, some integrated health systems, where the payer is also the provider and thus has more incentive to invest in IT (examples include the US Department of Veterans Affairs and Kaiser Permanente), have made substantial investments over the last five to ten years to develop integrated computer systems. These investments are now generating returns through better, less expensive care.

Third, the adoption of electronic medical records is accelerating and is expected to reach 70 to 90% among health care providers within five years. And health information exchanges (HIEs), which aim to boost the quality and efficiency of patient care by mobilizing health care information electronically across organizations within a region, community, or hospital system, are multiplying quickly in both developed and developing countries. In the US, for example, there are more than 200 HIEs in development, including more than 70 that are already in operation. China’s health-care reform initiative includes the development of nearly 350 “regional health information networks”, more than 100 of which have already been launched.

Fourth, technology standards have reached a level of maturity and adoption that is beginning to allow the interoperability of systems across care settings. A host of standards – including Logical Observation Identifiers Names and Codes (LOINC), Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine (DICOM), Health Level Seven International (HL7), and Systematized Nomenclature of Medicine – Clinical Terms (SNOMED CT) – are allowing for rich information interchange across care settings and are being used by regional health-information organizations, such as Indiana’s HIE, to coordinate care across regions, with impressive results. Though much developmental work remains to be done, as standards are refined and become more commonplace, the ability to exchange, aggregate, and analyse health care data will increase dramatically.

Health care informatics will transform the health care industry – and far sooner than many realize. Industry participants – and those that help support them, including IT services providers – that have not yet moved should be working on the development of informatics strategies and thinking about investment decisions. Taking a wait-and-see approach is a losing bet.

Copyright The Boston Consulting Group (4 March 2011)


Simon Kennedy MD is Senior Partner and Managing Director at the Boston office of The Boston Consulting Group.
Benjamin Berk is Project Leader at the Chicago office.

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[1] Larsson S., Lawyer P. & Silverstein M. (November 2010). From Concept to Reality: Putting Value-Based Health Care into Practice in Sweden. BCG White Paper.
[2] Porter M. & Teisberg E. (2006). Redefining Health Care: Creating Value-Based Competition on Results. Harvard Business Press.