Age and culture as impediments to the adoption of healthcare IT

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A friend sent me a link to an article written for by senior editor, Kate Evans-Corriea. Ms. Evans-Corriea's article entitled "Age Does Matter" reflects on what she says was a common theme at Gartner's recent Symposium ITxpo. That theme is perhaps best captured in a quote from Gartner analyst, Tom Bittman, who says, "It's not the technology; It's not the process that's holding us back. It's the culture".

As I read the article, I couldn't help but think about a conversation I had just had with a colleague who currently serves as a hospital CIO. He expressed to me his total frustration with hospital culture and healthcare providers. In fact, he is so frustrated that after ten years on the job he is looking for another position; this time likely in another industry.

His hospital had recently purchased a very advanced surgical management system that included anesthesia scheduling and work-flow automation. The anesthesiologists at first welcomed these new tools, although one of the docs had initially pushed back because he had designed his own solution that he thought was a lot better than the vendor solution selected by the hospital.

Even so, after a few weeks using the new system, several of the older and most influential members of the anesthesia group simply proclaimed that they didn’t like what the hospital had purchased and would be going back to using their old paper processes. And, as my colleague noted, "that was that".

A similar scenario had recently played out in the radiology department. The mammography unit was asked to start using the hospital's digital PACS system. They prepared the docs for the fact that their productivity could initially fall by as much as 30 percent until they got used to the new tools and work-flow. The docs agreed to give it a try, but as soon as their productivity actually did take a nose-dive, they rebelled and refused to use the new system.

I know what you may be thinking. Screw the doctors! Tell them they have no choice but to use the new systems. As a doctor and a former hospital VP/CIO and CMIO, I know it's not that easy. Those doctors are the life blood of the hospital. It took years to recruit the physicians who run the mammography unit. And the anesthesiologists? They along with their powerful surgeon allies are responsible for most of the hospital’s profit margin.

The CIO also told me about his hospital's struggle to implement an electronic charting system in nursing. He said the VP of Nursing gives the initiative good lip service, but her first in command is a 50 year old nurse who has never worked anywhere else, and there’s a lot of passive-aggressive behavior going on in the rank and file. Since the nurses are all employees, you might think administrators could just lay down the law and mandate the use of the nursing documentation system. But you would be naïve to think that. The average age of nurses working at the hospital, especially as managers and unit leads, is 50-plus. There’s a huge nursing shortage with lots of vacancies in posted positions. They have a powerful union. It’s hard to tell them what to do.

I share this because it is so typical of the culture in healthcare, and not only here in America. It speaks volumes on the issue that Gartner is drawing to our attention; it isn’t so much about the technology as it is about the culture, and the need for more carefully orchestrated change management.

Of course some of these hassles will resolve as the “dinosaurs” retire. But based on what Gartner is saying the age and culture issue won't go away. Instead of “why must I use this computer instead of my paper” the argument will become “why must I use this (fill in the blank) instead of my computer"?

Bill Crounse, MD     Worldwide Health Director      Microsoft

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