Is COVID-19 the Y2K of Healthcare IT?

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By Fred Lizza

Remember Y2K? The average person may recall it as the countdown to the year 2000 – and the fear that when the clock struck midnight, all computers would go haywire. Those working in technology at the time might remember Y2K as representative of a longer replacement cycle in the ‘90s in which many businesses replaced their core accounting, manufacturing, and supply chain systems.

Readying for the new millennium

At the time, some of that need to update technology systems was indeed driven by concerns over the Y2K bug, which was a problem stemming from the fact that data files typically captured dates in an abbreviated form (“01/01/97” rather than “01/01/1997,” for example). As the turn of the century began to loom, so did the realization that this meant computers wouldn’t be able to distinguish between the year 2000 and 1900. Companies around the world had to put their tech people to work on making sure their systems were “Y2K compliant.”

But end-of-the-millennium technology changes were also as much about our new internet-driven world. The ‘90s saw the rapid growth of the internet as everyone started getting online. Consumers began expecting their favorite companies to have a web presence, workers increasingly began to rely on email for communication, and businesses were re-thinking how they would operate in the new digital reality. It was becoming clear that new demands required different systems, and so many businesses did major overhauls to prepare both for the Y2K glitch and for the internet-fueled digital transformation. 

It now seems that 20 years later another crisis affecting the entire planet – COVID-19 rather than Y2K – could spur a similar tsunami of change. 

Cracks in the system

In many ways, the pandemic has shined a light on the need for hospitals, health centers, and medical practices to upgrade their IT infrastructure. While healthcare workers, administrators, and IT professionals have performed incredibly well in the face of this crisis, the difficulties they have encountered have accentuated numerous weaknesses in healthcare systems and infrastructure. 

For instance, the U.S. government had to quickly suspend some HIPAA regulations so that more people could make use of telemedicine services during the pandemic, especially during the earliest days of widespread lockdowns. The need for relaxing such regulations points to the fact that the healthcare industry has been quite slow to tackle the challenges around expanding telehealth offerings, despite growing interest from consumers who would appreciate the convenience. 

Another revealing example has been problems with the collection, management, and analysis of patient data on COVID-19, a process that is absolutely critical in dealing with a new infectious disease like this. It has been chaotic in the U.S., showing worrying problems in the country’s ability to effectively collect health data when in the midst of an urgent public health crisis, let alone in normal times.

Enter Y2K 2.0

Clearly there is a need for new infrastructure and systems that are better able to interoperate, eliminating the islands of automation in so many medical centers and health departments. Must every institution have its own quirky system and protocols? Must every administrator have to login to multiple databases to address one patient’s needs? Does an overworked resident doctor really need to use six pagers to receive messages from six different systems?

It is obvious that it’s high time for a Y2K-style makeover that will be better for doctors, patients, administrators, and everybody in-between.

With pandemic having accentuated the needs in hospitals, medical centers and practices, and other healthcare facilities, we can expect the coming of a long-term replacement cycle where many of these organizations upgrade their IT systems. These upgrades will be designed to support the new demands driven by the widespread and consistently growing use of telemedicine, AI-based diagnostic and analytic capabilities, and the need to potentially scale up again quickly and efficiently should another major health emergency like this arise again.  

What will the new systems look like?

The new wave of systems will be cloud-based, enabling more rapid implementation and scaling. They will be smart, but also transparent. Isolated pools of data will need to be dissolved into large “data lakes” that accumulate vast amounts of data to be analyzed by AI-assisted technologies and machine learning tools to spot trends, identify poor performing applications and processes, and assure security and HIPAA compliance over an increasing and complex pool of data.

The demand for these changes is not suddenly coming out of the blue for most organizations.

Interoperable and cloud-based systems have already been on the wish list for many medical centers, large and small, and telemedicine was already gaining traction even before COVID-19 made it all the more necessary. But, pre-pandemic, the champions for these changes often had to make their case on the basis of what might possibly happen. 

Like the Y2K before it, COVID-19 has fully grabbed everyone’s attention and made it crystal clear that we simply can’t do without big changes. It’s time to start installing new technology like it’s 1999.

About the Author 

Fred Lizza is CEO of Statum Systems, a startup developer of advanced mobile collaboration platforms that recently launched a crowdfunding campaign on StartEngine. He was previously CEO of StrategicClaim, an insurance claims platform, and Freestyle Solutions, an e-commerce leader. Fred earned his MBA from Harvard University. Contact him at [email protected].

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