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Insider: Can We Finally Get Serious About Healthcare?

A few weeks ago I sat in a lecture hall at Michigan State University’s School of Management listening to former U.S.

A few weeks ago I sat in a lecture hall at Michigan State University’s School of Management listening to former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary and Republican Presidential candidate Tommy Thompson discussing how the auto supplier and OEM community can tackle the increased financial burden of providing healthcare to their employees. While he touched on some of the usual themes—promoting preventative care, encouraging workers to eat healthier and the use of generic drugs—a few issues got me thinking about how our healthcare system can really become more efficient and affordable, without radical transformation.

One of the areas of concern is technology. Think about this for a minute: we scan and track packages with exact precision, we demand our vehicles have the most up-to-date high-definition, satellite-capable audio systems, yet the vast majority of our medical professionals are using manila folders and triplicate forms to keep track of our health. It’s as if our healthcare system is taking lessons from car dealers, who still use dot-matrix printers, carbon paper and hand calculators to compute monthly payments. Having recently gone for my own physical exam, I was shocked when my doctor entered the exam room with a tablet PC in hand. She ran through the obligatory Q&A about any problems I might be experiencing, all the while tapping the screen with her stylus, checking virtual boxes as she went along. Dumbfounded by the technology right before my very eyes, I kept quizzing her on the new tool she was using. She explained that she had to check every box and go though all the checklists before she could proceed; the computer would not let her skip ahead without going through all the steps. With this tool she could also email or print out prescriptions that were error-proof. Additionally, she could order referrals and other common procedures right there.

While she grumbled about having to tap a screen and learn a slightly different way to print, rather than simply writing things out, she did tell me the new technology has reduced costs and potential errors. Improved efficiency and lower costs? Seems like something the auto industry should embrace. That’s why I would compel every automaker to demand their healthcare providers require doctors use technology to improve efficiency. Why not reduce the reimbursement doctors receive when they issue paper prescriptions by $5-$10, while those that use electronic prescriptions won’t lose a dime? Thompson tells me that it costs only 25 cents to process an electronic prescription, while paper ones are $5 on average.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, nearly $78-billion in annual savings can be achieved throughout our $1.7-trillion healthcare system just by adopting simple technologies like laptops used during exams and the use of electronic prescriptions.

Thompson also espouses the benefits of developing a medical ID card, similar to a driver’s license, providing access to personal medical records no matter where in the nation or the world you need care. This would assure that medical professionals would not prescribe medicines that may trigger allergic reactions while alerting doctors of prior surgeries or injuries you may have encountered. While some raise privacy-related questions about having medical records so easily available, why do we not give a second thought to having our bank accounts accessible from thousands of machines on every corner, or providing our credit information while applying for credit cards on-line? Having an information system accessible by doctors and medical professionals would further reduce medical mistakes and improve efficiency.

Beyond the issue of technology, it’s time for the public and private sector to come together to provide a basic set of health insurance for every U.S. citizen. This will help to promote preventative care among those who currently do not have access to such services, while reducing the number of unnecessary emergency room visits—among the most costly of all care—these same individuals now use for routine medical situations. The approach toward a market-based solution should trigger automakers and suppliers to take immediate steps to help control their healthcare bill through bulk purchase of healthcare. Why is it that GM, Ford and Chrysler have separate healthcare options for their employees? Wouldn’t it be smarter if these parties all came to the bargaining table together and demanded their healthcare packages be negotiated simultaneously? Why have a myriad of options that could end up being duplicative, when it may be beneficial to gain savings through bulk purchasing? These are just a few items the auto industry and its supply base could put into action in order to gain immediate savings on one of their largest expenditures. These common-sense steps are a good way to raise the bar and develop other innovative approaches the tackling an issue that is likely to become core to the 2008 race for our country’s CEO. 

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