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Hospitals Struggle With How To Innovate In Age Of New Technology

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

American hospitals promise patients state-of-the-art technology. The definition varies, though. Technology could mean electronic record-keeping or robotic surgery. Hospitals are all over the place and many still grapple with how to innovate.

Joining us now is Dr. Neal Sikka. He works on innovation and technology at George Washington University Hospital, and he's chief medical officer for a start-up that provides virtual medical coaching to patients called 22otters. Welcome.

NEAL SIKKA: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Do you see a disconnect between, on one hand, the rhetoric and ambitions that we hear from hospitals and on the other hand the reality of cutting-edge technology and innovation?

SIKKA: Well, I think the disconnect comes just because of timing. You know, innovators move really, really rapidly. And the health care system, very highly regulated as it is and life and death - right? - everyone - everything you do could impact someone's life. It has to be very careful to adopt new technologies.

SHAPIRO: Is there a technological innovation that you think really ought to have caught on by now but because of whatever bureaucratic hurdles exist in the health care system hasn't?

SIKKA: The development of EMRs is a really interesting...

SHAPIRO: What are EMRs?

SIKKA: Electronic health records or electronic medical records.

SHAPIRO: Oh, sure.

SIKKA: The HITECH Act incentivized hospitals to adopt health records. And they've gone from really low adoption - I think at around 10 percent to over 80 percent of hospitals having electronic health records. But even though a lot of these technologies exist and hospitals are incentivized to provide them, if you look at patient portals, their utilization rate among patients is really, really low. And so we need to do a better job of educating patients about the types of information that are available to them and how they can use them to manage their health care better.

SHAPIRO: At the moment, if I get medical treatment from five different facilities, my electronic medical records might be affiliated with those five different places. Do you foresee a patient-centric future for electronic medical records, where no matter where you go to get treatment your records are associated with you and not with the facility where you're treated?

SIKKA: Well, I think that's the goal. The future is definitely having the patient control their own medical record and take it with them where they want it to go.

SHAPIRO: Are there other examples you can give me from your work at George Washington University Hospital that you think really shows the way technology is changing, the way medical care is administered?

SIKKA: Well, we really are focused on trying to improve the patient experience and patient access. And telemedicine, I think, is one of those areas that's really powerful. I've been practicing telemedicine for almost 15 years...

SHAPIRO: Telemedicine meaning being able to remotely consult with a doctor or nurse...

SIKKA: That's right. And we really started in the maritime industry. So...

SHAPIRO: You mean, like people on boats?

SIKKA: Exactly. So if you think about a mariner who's on a ship in the middle of the ocean, they have no access to care, right? And so they can reach out to one of our emergency physicians and talk to them through phone or sat phone, through email or through video. And we can diagnose a large majority of their problems.

We can help the medical officer on that ship manage that disease process until we get them to a definitive care. And so we're trying to take those same lessons and apply them to domestic care. And we think that this long history of learning how to interact with patients at a distance can be really powerful.

SHAPIRO: It's funny when I think about hospital innovation, I think about, you know, advanced cancer treatment or something like that. But just being able to get an appointment more easily and not have to wait in a drab waiting room and, like, all of those really mundane things seem like they could actually have a significant impact.

SIKKA: Absolutely. Those are part of the patient experience, right? You don't want to lose time at work sitting in a waiting room. You don't want to, you know, sit in traffic when you don't feel well. And there are lots of different scenarios where you don't need to waste that time. You can have much more convenient care.

SHAPIRO: That's Dr. Neal Sikka who works on innovation and technology at George Washington University Hospital. Thanks a lot.

SIKKA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.