- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2005

When King Hussein of Jordan was diagnosed with cancer, he could have sought treatment anywhere on the planet. He came to the Mayo clinic in the United States. When a mysterious illness struck now-President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko, his family could have requested help and treatment from any doctor. They sought out a medical team at the University of Virginia. American health-care providers and scientists pioneered and perfected open-heart surgery, lung transplants, anesthesia, CAT scans, MRI machines and ultrasound. While great caregivers can be found all around the world, American doctors and nurses are second to none.

Americans invest more than any other country in the health care of our citizens. So why is it then that the United States ranks only 24th in life expectancy and the World Health Organization rates our health-care system inferior to 36 other nations? Why do more Americans die from preventable medical errors than from AIDS, homicides and car crashes combined? Why is an estimated $300 billion wasted annually on unneeded and redundant medical tests, with another $150 billion lost to administrative waste?

The answer to these questions, in large measure, is that the world’s greatest doctors, armed with history’s most powerful medical tools, operate within a system that is inefficient and disconnected. It’s as if we’re putting our best jet pilots in the cockpits of antiquated World War II fighters. This antiquated system disserves our patients and providers. At a time when industries around the globe are tapping the power of technology to transform how they do business, our health-care system is investing less in these technologies than every sector except construction, education and mining.

You know this already. Every time you walk into a doctor’s office and fill out the same paperwork with your same personal information it is a reminder that we can do better. Every time you have to wait for test results to be hand-carried from one department to another, it’s a reminder that we can do better. And every time you cool your heels at a pharmacy while they place a call to a doctor’s office because the pharmacist can’t decipher the handwriting on a prescription, it’s a reminder we can do better.

We can do better. We have the tools to significantly improve the care, cost and convenience of health care for all Americans. And we can once again lead the world, pioneering perhaps the most important changes enabled by the Internet yet to improve the human condition. And we can do so in a way that lets our doctors share information that can save your life; and empowers you and your family to participate effectively in your treatment and care.

Of course this will not be easy. Transformations never are. The good news is that political leadership is stepping forward. From George W. Bush to Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy to Bill Frist, many top elected officials are saying the right things and demonstrating the needed vision.

Two leaders in particular are both talking and acting. Dr. David Brailer, national health information coordinator at the Department of Health and Human Services, and his boss Secretary Mike Leavitt, are trying to leverage the market and moral power of government to catalyze change in our health-care system. Over the past several weeks Mr. Leavitt has stressed the importance of federal government leadership by example, using the government’s market power to promote innovation, investment and transformation. These are important steps.

But more must be done. We will need to match the vision with the will to change. In the weeks and months ahead, Congress and administration officials will need to step up to the challenge, funding Dr. Brailer’s cutting-edge initiatives at the HHS as well as on-the-ground efforts by providers and payers to adopt and implement change through Medicare. In that regard, inclusion of a Medicare reserve fund in the budget was a good start.

Change is never easy, but it is essential because so much is at stake. A health-care system transformed through greater use of information technology will do more than save lives and save money. It will provide you and your family the confidence of knowing that the best doctors and nurses have all the tools they need to offer the best possible care.

Bruce Mehlman served as assistant secretary of technology policy at the Commerce Department from 2001-2003. He now serves as executive director of the Computer Systems Policy Project, a CEO policy advocacy group.

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