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Massachusetts Medical Society's Physician Focus

May 2012

Health Care and Information Technology


  • Information technology -- the use of computers, software, and other electronic devices – is fast becoming a pervasive and critical part of health care delivery.

  • Besides offering diagnostic tools, information technology allows for such advancements as electronic health records and electronic prescribing – key tools that benefit both physicians and patients.

  • With this technology, health care providers can improve communication with patients, cut health care costs, and reduce medical errors.

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For most industries and professions, technology has increased productivity, reduced costs, and led to better services and products. Health care, however, hasn’t kept pace, but it’s catching up now, and health information technology – or health IT – is rapidly changing health care for both physicians and patients.

So just what is health IT?

Hugh Taylor, M.D., a family physician in Hamilton, Massachusetts, describes it this way: “Health information technology is basically anything to do with electronics and computers that we use to help us in health care, and that can include electronic medical records , electronic prescribing, or mobile devices that we use to care for and keep track of patients.”

Thomas Sulllivan, M.D., a cardiologist in Salem, Massachusetts, expands on the definition. “Health IT is different than the traditional technology we use to diagnose and treat patients. It includes language and software that’s used with the hardware; it’s more involved with communications. We use these tools to better interact with and treat our patients.”

The two physicians, both members of the Massachusetts Medical Society’s Committee on Information Technology, were guests on the May edition of Physician Focus with program host Bruce Karlin, M.D. to discuss health information technology and how it’s changing the ways physicians practice medicine and patients receive care.

Most observers agree that the industry is still in its early stages of development, and some physicians, particularly those in small practices, are still struggling with its inception: the cost of establishing IT into a practice can be expensive, and learning how to use it and transferring patient information can be time-consuming. And the lack of interoperability – the ability of computers used by different hospitals or different physician practices to talk to each other – can sometimes be frustrating.

Despite its “growing pains,” health IT has many advantages. “The biggest asset,” says Dr. Sullivan, who is also Chair of the Partners Health System Confidentiality and Security Steering committee as well as the Chief Privacy Officer and Chief Strategic Officer of, “is being able to search within our own systems for a patient’s past history, to look for such things as drug allergies. And the ability to access information online brings added benefits. As many patients go to multiple doctors, you can see what the other physicians are prescribing. You want to know for the patient’s safety what other doctors are prescribing.”

E-prescribing offers great benefits as well, says Dr. Taylor. “It allows for two-way communication with the pharmacist,” he says. “The pharmacist doesn’t have to struggle to read my handwriting and he can resolve questions from the patients. It has cut prescribing errors to just about zero.”

Another great benefit to using computers, says Dr. Taylor is to “make sure patients get the kind of care they know they should be getting on a regular basis.”

If a patient is diabetic, for example, they require regular checks such as eye exams and blood tests. By setting up such tools as “alerts” or “reminders” on a computerized system, the physician can quickly know when they’re due for periodic screenings or tests and communicate with the patient to remind him or her to see that those are done.

Despite the current shortcomings and frustrations, both physicians firmly believe the advantages of health IT far outweigh the negatives and that health IT will substantially improve health care for both physicians and patients.

The advent of information technology into medicine, says Dr. Sullivan, has created an “exciting time to be in medicine. These new tools can make medical care safer, better, and hopefully less expensive. These new tools are great assets.”

Watch the accompanying video for the complete discussion, including conversation about physician-patient communication through ‘patient portals,’ the importance of physician-patient interaction and how the computer can affect it, and the significance of – and distinctions among – privacy, confidentiality, and security in health information technology.

MMS/Richard Gulla


Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

Office of National Coordinator for Health Information Technology

Massachusetts eHealth Collaborative

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Health IT PSA

From left: Bruce Karlin, M.D., Hugh Taylor, M.D., Thomas Sullivan, M.D.
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