BANGKOK, 12 MAY 2009 - Electronic health-care systems have become a hot topic around the world, with governments providing stimulus programs to hurry the trend along. A renowned hospital in Thailand provides something of a model for the benefits of an e-health system, but it also highlights a challenge that medical centers in more developed economies may face.
Thailand's Bumrungrad International Hospital has digitized as many aspects of hospital work as it can, enabling it to more than double the number of patients it can handle each day, increase safety and cut its patients' bills. "Its made a significant difference," said Chang Foo, the hospital's chief technology officer.
Bill payment, human resources, record keeping and inventory are now all done electronically, allowing the hospital's staff to get more work done. Doctors no longer wait around for patient records, such as X-ray or blood test results, to be delivered by hand. And wasteful duplication has been eliminated because doctors can see what tests have been done already and access results immediately.
Digitization has also improved safety. Bumrungrad has an e-prescription system that helps to eliminate errors from illegible handwriting, and allergy alerts that warn doctors if they are prescribing medications that are unsuitable for a patient and can suggest alternatives based on the symptoms observed.
Microsoft was so impressed with the hospitals software system, which was developed by a company called Global Care Solutions, that it bought the company. It now sells the software almost everywhere, outside of North America, as the Amalga Hospital Information System (HIS).
Bumrungrad's old way of doing things, using paper and film, resulted in thick file folders in sprawling record rooms that had to be collected and updated by hand. Only one attending doctor could see them at any given time. Should a specialist on another floor of the hospital want to see blood test results, they might have ordered a new test just because they didn't know what was in the file.
The most obvious benefit has been in the number of patients Bumrungrad can handle safely in a day. In 1999, the hospital could handle up to 1,500 people per day, but now Bumrungrad sees 3,000 to 4,000 patients a day with no increase in administrative staff, beds or rooms.
That increase in efficiency is one that other countries would like to replicate. The U.S. and the U.K., for example, are pushing forward on plans to use information technology to improve health care. To increase the uptake of such systems, the U.S. has earmarked US$19 billion for spending on health information technology, while the U.K. has set aside £12 billion (US$17.5 billion).
But the adoption of electronic health records has been slow in many countries despite the apparent advantages. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine last month found that only 1.5 percent of U.S. hospitals had a comprehensive electronic health record system, while an additional 7.6 percent had just a basic system.
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