By David Woods ([email protected])

A pair of economists, Charles Jones of the University of California at Berkeley and Robert Hall of Stanford University, predict that the share of income devoted to healthcare in the US will almost double to 30% by 2050.

While some of that increase has to do with an aging population and ever more sophisticated technology, much of it has to do with waste, duplication, defensive medicine brought on by possible litigation… and by general inefficiency and antiquated ways of connecting and communicating.

One much-touted solution to all this is for healthcare to embrace technology in much the same way as have the insurance and airline industries. In fact, that quintessential techie, Bill Gates, noted in the Wall Street Journal recently that the central issue is the fragmented nature of the way health information is created and collected.

Few industries, he said, are as information dependent and data rich as healthcare: every visit to a physician, every test and measurement and procedure generates more information; yet every clinic, hospital department, and doctor’s office has its own systems for storing that information and most of them don’t talk to one another.

Gates went on to say that his company, Microsoft, envisions a comprehensive internet-based system that enables healthcare providers to automatically deliver personal health data to each patient in the form they can understand and use.
But it won’t be easy.

Healthcare is an immensely fragmented enterprise with often competing and sometimes counterproductive fiefdoms. Nonetheless, Microsoft’s software powers more than 90% of all personal computers… something that Bill Gates sees as having the potential to attract huge audiences for health-related information, advertising, and services.

And Google is not far behind in this desire to “wire” healthcare, and put the patient at the centre of healthcare delivery, creating a more collaborative partnership rather than a top-down, ex-cathedra approach. In fact, Google Health’s welcome page reads: “At Google, we feel patients should be in charge of their health information, and they should be able to grant their healthcare providers, family members, or whomever they choose, access to this information. Google Health was developed to meet this need.”

At a time when all the candidates for the presidency of the United States are putting forth differing views of how America’s broken healthcare system can be fixed, wiring it is surely something they can all agree upon. Even the man about to leave the presidency has jumped on this particular issue. In his 2006 State of the Union address, George W. Bush called upon the healthcare community to “make wider use of electronic records and other health information technology.”

It’s an idea whose time has definitely come.