The Limits of Technology in Health Care

Sometimes we may find ourselves wondering what computer software can’t do. We can upload photographs, turn them into videos, animate them, even stylize them or make them look like sketches. Computer programs also allow us to store and catalog information and create documents of various types. Whatever our profession, chances are there’s a computer program to shorten some steps in the process. With so much at our fingertips, it can be tempting to take do-it-yourself to an extreme.

Industry professionals, though, caution about the limits of technology, particularly in highly specialized fields. Many fields require both artistic/ creative ability and field-specific knowledge. A program can help someone create a product that looks attractive to the lay person, but it won’t necessarily convey the necessary information. One thing software can’t do is think critically.

The Arts in Medicine

For an example, we can turn to medical illustration, a field that requires a master’s level education. Medical illustrators have to have an understanding of anatomy and physiology and other medical concepts. They must also understand the needs of the user and make decisions about what information to leave in and what to leave out. Delilah Cohn, a professional with over thirty years’ experience in the profession, notes that medical information must be visualized differently, depending on who the audience is. Those in the medical profession may need much more background information than health professionals – a series of illustrations, perhaps – to understand medical information.

Cohn views computer programs as a tool, much like the airbrushes that used to be the norm in the industry. She stresses that design programs are no more capable of completing a medical illustration than Microsoft Word is of completing a book. The programs shorten some stages of the process, but not all.

Health Information and Medical Coding

Information technology is another field that where assistive technology has changed job duties but not replaced humans. Medical coders must analyze the notes of medical professionals and apply codes and modifiers to make sure payers are billed properly. Health information professionals organize information that informs medical research. Not surprisingly, developers have created programs that assist at various points in the process.

According to the American Health Information Management Association, new technologies are necessary just to keep up with increasing demands within the industry. AHIMA notes that both medical codes and payer-specific policies are becoming more complex and the penalties for error have increased. Coding professionals are expected to do more and do it better. Technology can indeed be an aid, and there are different levels of assistance available. Natural Language Processing (NLP) programs are programs that actually abstract information and assign it a code.

There are indeed tasks that a program can code more efficiently than a coding professional and with just as much accuracy. AHIMA cites coding normal mammogram results as one example.

In many types of coding, the ideal is that every single code be reviewed by a coding professional. Will coding specialists become only a safety checkpoint, reading computer-generated code after computer generated code – in itself a form of automation? No. AHIMA suggests that there will be a shift in the duties of coding professionals over time. They will move from a production role to a knowledge worker role. They will interpret and analyze complex data, request provider clarification when documentation is lacking, and participate in tasks which require aggregate data. AHIMA makes the very same pronouncement that Cohn did: Software programs are a tool.

The Future

It’s important to understand that as disciplines grow more complex, as the number of assessment techniques, diagnoses, medications, and surgical procedures multiplies, the work would multiply as well – were it not for computers. In many cases, what we’ll see is a shift toward using people in positions that require critical thinking. Computers may “think quickly” but they don’t have the kind of complex thought processes that people do.