Don’t Look Back

March 31 is the deadline for most Americans to ensure that they have enrolled in a qualifying health insurance program or else face penalties when they file their income taxes, and in many ways this is the most concrete of the deadlines imposed by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.

With each passing milestone of the act, the legislation becomes more deeply entrenched as the “law of the land,” and the rollout of the healthcare exchanges (however rocky) and the imposition of the individual mandate in 2014 are more than symbolic – they establish a precedent.

On the flipside, Twitter hashtags of #FullRepeal are quite symbolic.  Legislation was passed, healthcare exchanges have been implemented at a cost of billions of dollars, and millions of people who were previously were uninsured are now insured through the exchanges.

Whatever your political stripes, one thing is certain, the genie is out of the bottle, and the job of responsible politicians on both sides of the aisle is to figure out how to leverage what currently exists in order to serve a population that could really care less about personal political agendas.  The people want a healthcare system that works, plain and simple.

The precursor of the Affordable Care Act was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (and its specific provisions related to Healthcare Technology called the HITECH Act) has been quietly working behind the scenes to promote the widespread implementation of Electronic Medical Record systems by promising Federal funds to healthcare providers and organizations that implement these systems.

The result was the broad abandonment of paper as a means of tracking patient health data and health outcomes in favor of data driven technologies where discreet data is stored in a way that transforms patient care.

Now, physicians are warned by back-end algorithms when they are about to perform a procedure or administer a medicine that is potentially life threatening – all because numbers and words are stored in columns and rows in powerful servers in a data centers somewhere.

Whether you like the legislation or not, and there is certainly plenty about the legislation that could be improved upon, there are “best practices” being followed across our nation, and lives being saved, because patient charts have been converted to data points.

What’s more, that data is all being housed, and amassed, waiting for the right analyst or PhD. Student to come along and take all of those data points and perform ground-breaking research that will lead to new therapies, standards of care and protocols that could have never been discerned or discovered if all of those patient charts remained on paper.  Data by itself is just data, but data in the hands of the right analyst can lead to a revolution in patient care.

So, while the politicians fight about the merits of their legislation, and the twitter feeds erupt with hashtags that have little to do with the well being of the patient population that the politicians serve, let’s look on the bright side.  If these newly insured receive care in these hospitals that have implemented technologies that will store their records in a meaningful way, then perhaps that extra data will serve the rest of us down the road.  The legislation of 2009 was the first push of some dramatic legislative maneuvering that was aimed squarely at changing the way that Americans “do healthcare.”

The genie is out of the bottle, and there isn’t a politician out there who is going to “uninsured” these American citizens who are insured for the first time because of this legislation, no matter how flawed it is.  We need to figure out how to leverage all of this health data to provide better care, and perhaps to find some new therapies and treatments that couldn’t be discerned from paper charts.

We can the let politicians continue to fight each other on their political stumps, because that’s just what they do.

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