Digital Is Different

Digital is DifferentSomething John Halamka, the CIO at Beth Israel Deaconess, said when he was presenting at the Hx Refactored conference in April has really stuck with me. He was talking about the work happening in health care to transition from paper-based systems to electronic ones, work which is spurred in part by the Affordable Care Act and in part by a growing recognition that we just need to become more efficient and effective. In reflecting on the efforts to convert to digital systems so far, Halamka said:

Digitizing paper is not the right answer.

I think Halamka is right. Moreover, I think he’s put his finger on one of the major pain points facing health technology.

The digital world is not a direct analog of the physical one. We manipulate and interact with information differently in digital spaces. Yet efforts around creating electronic medical records, for example, focus on mirroring the physical experience as much as possible. I think this is for at least two reasons:

1. We want to make the transition to new technologies as simple as possible for health care workers, and keeping as many things similar as possible is a logical way to do that.

2. It’s very difficult to break out of the way we already think and to reconceptualize health information.

Halamka’s words have helped make me more mindful that my work in the digital world need not mimic the physical one. They also reinforce the need for experts from different fields–interaction design, data visualization, art–to collaborate with more traditional health care professions to bring about the next generation in health care technology. Whatever the successful solutions of the next few decades look like, they probably won’t look like the file cabinets of yesteryear.