When the US Congress convenes for business, after the July 4 Independence Day celebrations, the Obama administration will come face to face with its biggest challenge – getting Congress to approve its massive health care reform package [7].

Governments in Asia have varying degrees of success when it comes to health care provision to the citizens. According to Aparnaa Somanathan of the Institute of Policy Studies, Equity in Asia-Pacific Health Systems, universal access to healthcare is the goal for many governments in Asia. How governments reach this goal is the subject of much study and debate. Somanathan lauds Hong Kong and Sri Lanka for leading the charge in the provision of universal healthcare service regardless of social status.

Market research firm, Frost and Sullivan, estimates that IT spending among healthcare organizations will reach US$10 billion by 2012. “Healthcare providers no longer consider IT solutions and services an unnecessary cost burden, but a critical value provider,” says Frost & Sullivan consultant Dr. Pawel Suwinski. “In public and private hospitals, IT budgets are expected to increase from the year 2009 to 2011.”

That said, IT spending proposals will undergo tougher reviews as CIOs and IT managers feel the same budget and operational pressures as their peers in other industries.

Dr. Suwinski notes that lack of standards has remained a stumbling block for the adoption of healthcare IT solutions in many parts of Asia including China and India. In more developed markets like Australia and Southeast Asian countries, the focus appears to be around adopting clinical information systems and electronic medical records solutions.

Recently a friend was admitted at The Medical City [8](TMC), a private hospital in the Philippines. He arrived at 11:25pm to be admitted as per instruction of his doctor, an attending physician at the hospital. He purposely timed it so late in the evening to speed admission process. And yet it took him almost 20 minutes to get processed despite the fact that there were only two other persons in the room waiting to be admitted.

According to Gerard Anthony Dass, healthcare solutions leader at Nortel Asia, patient admissions and discharges. “The process often requires hours of staff time, coordination of multiple departments and rarely seems to run smoothly. And every step of the process costs hospitals money and time and generally leaves patients wondering why everything is taking so long,” notes Daas.

Indeed, my friend is not new to TMC and yet each visit requires him to fill exactly the same form. In the 25 years I’ve known him, he hasn’t changed his name, date of birth, and other personal details since becoming a TMC customer in 2000.

The good news is that private hospitals across Asia are discovering the financial windfall that health tourism brings. The tax revenue to be gained from the industry has also caught governments with many supporting the local hospital industry efforts to upgrade infrastructure to cater to the growing influx of foreigners searching for low-cost but good quality health services.

One technology that is seeing an upsurge in interest is unified communication (UC). How else would a hospital like TMC manage 40,000 in-patient and 380,000 out-patient customers annually? UC helps lare hospitals with very mobile doctors, nurse and supporting staff move about quickly and efficiently to serve its customers.

Daas claims that UC combined with new applications such as automated patient discharge solutions will allow hospitals to discharge a patient 50% faster than previously possible.

However all is not smooth sailing. Limited IT resources and shrinking budgets are hampering adoption of new technologies.

“Public hospitals need solutions that meet their forward-looking plans, while affordably addressing current needs without sacrificing application performance in any way. They need solutions to deliver the advanced technologies, services and communications-enabled clinical applications that will allow them to do much more with limited resources, faster, and with fewer errors; facilitating clinician mobility and effective communication,” said Daas.

Whether in the public or private hospitals, improving the quality and speed of patient care is of paramount importance to healthcare professionals. Hospitals like Thailand’s Bumrungrad and Hong Kong’s Matilda Hospital are leading the charge in improve patient care through technology.

Communication-enabled applications are helping hospitals empower staff with access to up-to-date patient information. “UC-powered solutions enable hospitals to mobilize clinicians and staff, unify multimedia communications and make the most of standardized digital health records. The ability to share digital files securely – even over large distances and in new treatment regimes – is made possible thanks to wireless technologies,” Daas adds.

At one point in its operation, Kyushu University Hospital in southern Japan’s Kyushu region needed better access to x-rays, diagnosis data, ultrasound imaging, real-time patient vital signs and operating theater monitoring. The hospital recently deployed a new medical information network, based on Nortel’s clinical-grade Healthcare Solutions, enabling information to be more efficiently stored, managed, retrieved and shared to help physicians, specialists and medical staff collaborate to improve the outcomes of patients.

Another example showing the benefits of having better communications is Taiwan Mobile Healthcare Services. It provides high-bandwidth links for doctors treating patients at Taipei Medical University Hospital, Tri-Service General Hospital and Taipei City-Wan Fang Hospital. As part of the government’s M-Taiwan initiative, a wireless solution gives doctors virtual access to patient medical records, monitors the condition of long-term sufferers of chronic diseases, provides high-quality diagnostic images and video, and provides remote outpatient registration to improve healthcare services.

The King Fahad Medical City hospital, one of the largest healthcare providers in the Middle East is using UC to enhance care and manage costs across its four hospitals and 269 primary clinics. It uses a UC-enabled solution to integrate IP telephony, enhance call answering, contact center and interactive voice response (IVR) capabilities with legacy voice systems, and promptly connect patients with the right clinicians for responsive and personalized care.

If you have ever recently visited a hospital as a in-patient, how long did it take for you to get discharged by hospital administrators after your attending doctor gives you a clean bill of health? My friend waited for three hours to get his discharged paper. After several inquiries at the nurse’s station and frustration showing in his voice and face, it took him over 2.5 hours to get his bill so he could pay up and get out. It took him less than five minutes to settle his bill.

Hospitals, like any other business, are constantly on the lookout to trim the fat in their operations while satisfying the urgency of improving patient care. Hospitals like Bumrungrad, Kyushu University Hospital, King Fahad Medical City hospital and Taiwan Mobile Healthcare Services have shown that information technology has enough innovation to meet the business needs of hospital – improve patient care.

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[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/19/us/politics/19reform.html
[8] http://www.themedicalcity.com/