American Medical Association’s president talks health tech

November 4, 2014, 9:38 PM UTC
Doctors Seek Higher Fees From Health Insurers
BERLIN, GERMANY - SEPTEMBER 05: A doctor speaks with a patient about her high blood pressure, or hypertension, on September 5, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. Doctors in the country are demanding higher payments from health insurance companies (Krankenkassen). Over 20 doctors' associations are expected to hold a vote this week over possible strikes and temporary closings of their practices if assurances that a requested additional annual increase of 3.5 billion euros (4,390,475,550 USD) in payments are not provided. The Kassenaerztlichen Bundesvereinigung (KBV), the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians, unexpectedly broke off talks with the health insurance companies on Monday. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)
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Healthcare’s future has never been more exciting. Innovation is transforming how doctors do their jobs and giving the public new ways to look after their own well-being.

There are bracelets that let people track their fitness, apps for visiting doctors virtually, and medical research that would be impossible without computers slicing and dicing of massive amounts of data. Dr. Robert Wah, president of the American Medical Association, which lobbies on behalf of doctors and promotes public health, discussed the medical industry’s adoption of technology with Fortune.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity)

There’s a lot going on with medical technology.

We are moving into a time in healthcare when we can access better information and use it to make better decisions. We have new techniques to bring together different sources of information. In analytics, we are seeing patterns emerge that we never think about. It’s like making the needle stick out of the haystack. It’s exciting. Recently, they merged a patient’s credit score with the probability that patients will take their medicine. There’s a correlation. No one would have thought of that.

In retail, analytics is being used to predict consumer behavior. If we were able to move that into healthcare we could take much better care of patients.

What’s the roadmap for seeing more widespread adoption of big data and analytics in medicine?

There’s three phases. We need to go from paper records to digital, then connect the digital records and network them together. Finally we need to be able to analyze all the digital information.

We’re seeing some of the analysis now. We have all these new sources of information, sensors, data from non-traditional sources like credit scores—all of them are new analytics opportunities.

Why haven’t we seen widespread adoption already?

There was a bill passed in 2009 that incentivized doctors to move from paper records to digital. Each stage will become more and more stringent to make sure people are using electronic records. We are currently at stage two of three.

But we’re concerned that there’s no partial credit for complying. If you aren’t converted 100% to electronic records you get penalized. We’re looking for more flexibility from the government.

The new requirements for stage three are a concern. Doctors are responsible for things not under their control like making sure 100% of their patients access records electronically. We can’t follow a patient home.

We also just did a survey and found out one of the highest sources of dissatisfaction with doctors is their use of electronic records. We did a focus group to find out what we need from vendors so doctors use electronic records in a more satisfying and effective way. We came up with eight characteristics. Now we’re going to take them to vendors and the government.

What do doctors need?

I don’t have them all memorized, but here are a few. Data liquidity: we need data to be able to move more easily between systems. Cognitive workload: sometimes electronic record systems require physicians to do more than just record patient interactions, but details that aren’t tied to the patient’s ailment.

There are reminders and recommendations that frequently don’t apply to a doctor’s practice, so doctors have to wade through pop-up windows. We need more modularity—the ability to add features and functions without replacing an entire system. We want to see the same plug-and-play for electronic records that you see in other technologies. And we want to have a more direct way to voice our concerns and make suggestions to vendors.

What about patient privacy?

Patients have traditionally entrusted healthcare providers with some of their most private and personal information because they know it can help them. As physicians, we are data stewards. As long as patients believe sharing information will help them, they will share. They will be more suspicious if there’s a commercial flavor to the healthcare information.

But the flipside of privacy is security. We’ve all seen the headlines about credit cards. The street value of a health record is 15 times more than the street value of a credit card. Health records hold a rich amount of data so criminals can build a durable false identity, and you can’t cancel a health record like a credit card. Criminals will turn their sights to healthcare and it’s going to be an arms race against digital crime.

Any other concerns?

We want to be sure that technology helps us get better care for patients. We also want to be sure that it’s part of the workflow, rather than getting in the way. Doctors will embrace anything that helps them do their work better. There’s no hesitance about improving, there’s lots of hesitance about technology that gets in the way—usability and user interfaces are important.