Medicine has made huge leaps in the past 50 years, to the great benefit of human beings. “The advances in medical technology in the past 50 years supersede any made in the previous two millennia. A hospital today is virtually like a lab at IBM because of all the technology it holds,” said Ritu Agarwal, Dean’s Chair of Information Systems and director of the Center for Health Information and Decision Systems (CHIDS) at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. But for all the striking and remarkable advances in the lab and operating room, the back offices of doctor’s offices—the place where patient information is kept—still looks much like it did in 1950.
That was the subject of “Bits, Bytes and Potions: the Digital Future of Health and Medicine,” Agarwal’s 2011 Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Lecture on Nov 2, 2011. The University of Maryland’s Distinguished Scholar-Teacher award honors faculty who personify the university image of the professorate by virtue of their outstanding scholarly accomplishments and excellence in teaching. Agarwal is the 14th Smith professor to be so honored.
Agarwal studied information technology as a graduate student but her passion was that of a social scientist. “Technology is just a tool, an artifact,” she said. “How it propels change is the important question. How do we understand the interplay between very advanced technologies and the structures that can impede these technologies?”
For Agarwal, healthcare IT fascinated for just those reasons. She founded CHIDS with Smith School Dean Anand Anandalingam (then a fellow professor) to study this convergence between the two greatest forces of the modern era—the advent of digital technology and the great advances in medicine. Agarwal believes IT has the potential to move information through the healthcare system more quickly and more effectively, preventing deaths due to medical error, improving diagnoses and reducing healthcare costs across the system.
But to do that, there are “unique and peculiar” systemic barriers that must be overcome before we can expect to see healthcare IT widely assimilated, says Agarwal. Hospitals, doctors’ offices and many ancillary healthcare providers all use differing computer systems that don’t talk to each other. Usability is an issue—there are thousands of healthcare professionals who would need to learn to use these applications. Then there is the trouble with insuring the privacy of patient medical information.
Examining these puzzles with both passion and precision has marked Agarwal’s long and productive research career. In addition to her work with CHIDS, Agarwal is leading a university-wide initiative to study the healthcare system with Maryland faculty across many disciplines. Her work has influenced her students, many other scholars, but also policy-makers in Congress.
The problems of the future—the movement from disease-centric to patient-centric care, extremely personalized care based on individual genotype, continuous rather than episodic care—are some of the exciting puzzles on Agarwal’s research horizon for the future.
For more information about Agarwal, visit the CHIDS website at: www.rhsmith.umd.edu/chids.
Rebecca Winner, Office of Marketing Communications