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The Digital Future of Healthcare: Will We Get It Right?

There’s no question the U.S. healthcare system is broken. It’s overloaded, over-administered, over-litigated, and way more costly – in dollars and in lives – than it ever should be. For years, information technology promised to cure much of what ails healthcare, and the $30 billion of federal incentives doled out since 2010 to wire the system seemed like just the prescription. But so far, the benefits of computerization have been more elusive, and the side effects more toxic, than anyone anticipated.

“Someday the computerization of medicine will be the long-awaited disruptive innovation,” says Dr. Robert Wachter, practicing physician and renowned authority on healthcare quality, safety and the organization of care. “Today it’s often just disruptive” – of the doctor-patient relationship, clinicians’ interactions and workflow, and the way we measure and try to improve.

Part of the challenge is that medicine, our most intimately human profession, is being dehumanized by technology. Doctors are no longer looking their patients in the eye, and often find themselves treating the patient’s electronic data rather than the flesh-and-blood person. While computers are preventing many medical errors, they’re also causing new ones, some of them whoppers.

However, Dr. Wachter, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco and currently a visiting professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, acknowledges that the wired world of healthcare is our future. He also believes “it’s up to all of us – patients, physicians, policy makers, vendors, leaders and influencers – to not only make it happen, but make it work.”

His forthcoming book, “Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age” (McGraw-Hill, March 2015), outlines what it will take. But to do so effectively first requires a look back, and Dr. Wachter offers that too – an unvarnished view of the early days of healthcare’s transformation from analog to digital, a so-far untold tale of modest wins and unexpected surprises and failures. Yet, the story ultimately can have a happy ending, and with remarkable anecdotes, crisp analysis, humor and humanity, he tells us how we can get there.

The keynote speaker at the recent National Patient Safety Foundation’s Lucian Leape Institute Forum & Gala, he said of the digitization of medicine: “We have to do it. But so far, we are not getting it right.”

Read more about Dr. Wachter’s provocative perspectives on the current and future state of healthcare and technology on his popular blog. Named by Modern Healthcare as one of the 50 most influential physician-executives in the U.S. and one of the 100 most influential people in healthcare, he also is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal’s “The Experts.”