Q&A with Anthony Hess Unisys: the Future of Healthcare IT

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Anthony Hess, Unisys

Dr. Anthony Hess, vice president and managing partner for the Healthcare and Natural Resources group at Unisys Federal Systems, sat down with WashingtonExec to discuss advances in healthcare IT. With a background in chemistry and 25 years of experience, he talked about ways to control healthcare costs, the emerging field of personalized medicine, and getting kids interested in science and math.

WashingtonExec: What impact do you think the new Affordable Healthcare Act, also known as ObamaCare, will have on healthcare IT?

Anthony Hess: The Affordable Care Act, and I’ll add the HITECH Act, takes steps to improve insurance coverage and access to healthcare while encouraging the adoption and use of electronic health information technologies. Taken in combination, these two pieces of legislation are designed to improve the health of our citizens while controlling costs and increasing the quality of care. Our nation’s healthcare system, however, is a large complex enterprise with total expenditures estimated to exceed $2.5 trillion per year or about 18% of our gross domestic product. Changing a nationwide system of this size takes time and requires long-term commitment to more than legislative improvements. It will also require new financial incentives, business models, and better ways to adopt and utilize technology. Although progress has been made over the past decade, the nation is ultimately just taking its first steps in a long journey to improve healthcare quality while reigning in costs.  How best to accomplish this dual-goal is likely to be the subject of debate for many years to come.

WashingtonExec: What are some information technologies that you think can help control healthcare costs in the future?

Anthony Hess: For healthcare providers, the adoption of electronic health records, modernizing back office hardware and software systems, and taking advantage of mobile computing all offer the promise of reduced costs through increased operational efficiencies.  The use of electronic records, as opposed to paper-based systems, makes it easier to access information. And that forms the basis for more informed decisions, which in turn helps to reduce medical errors. Reduced medical errors save lives and lead to reduced costs.

As consumers of healthcare, we can also use technology to be better informed about decisions and lifestyle choices we make every day. For example, the CDC estimates that chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes contribute to 75 percent of healthcare costs.  The continued development of home health strategies and information systems that provide chronically ill patients with the information they need to manage their diseases can have a profound effect on the quality of their lives as well as the cost of medical care.

WashingtonExec: How do you see cloud or mobile computing impacting how consumers and patients use healthcare IT?

Anthony Hess: Cloud technologies make it easier for information to be stored and exchanged and for common services to be shared.  Healthcare has been slow to adopt public clouds primarily due to security and privacy concerns, but private or hybrid clouds offer near-term value to the community.

The combined use of cloud and mobile computing has the ability to change core healthcare processes. For example, today we still fill out our medical histories – as best as we can remember them – on patient intake forms while sitting in a waiting room. Using cloud storage combined with mobile technologies, personal health records can be accessed from any location at any time.  At minimum, this would allow you to have convenient access to an accurate record while you filled out the form, and maybe in the future even eliminate the need to fill out the forms altogether.

WashingtonExec: How do you think current security or privacy regulations are impacting scientific and healthcare research?

Anthony Hess: One of the biggest challenges facing the industry today is working out policies that balance data accessibility with the real need for patient privacy.  The availability of anonymous research data is essential for certain types of studies, but it takes diligence to ensure that no personally identifiable information gets inadvertently disclosed to an inappropriate party. In a world filled with electronic data systems, we all know that security and privacy concerns are real and that steps must be taken to ensure the protection of information. The question of how to best manage the security level of a given type of data against the risk of exposure is a constant evolution of both the policies that govern data access and use and the technologies that store and move it around in the system. Patient privacy is an active area of policy research in its own right, and I’m confident the people involved in the field from industry and government will continue to strive to strike the right balance between access and privacy.

WashingtonExec: What is your Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy at Unisys Federal Systems?

Anthony Hess: Currently our policy includes smart phones and tablets. We cover Blackberries, Apple products and Androids. At Unisys, all of the devices must have a Unisys-controlled profile that allows us to manage people’s access to Unisys resources. We also use security control features that are inherent in the devices’ operating systems, such as the ability to manage passwords as well as things like device wiping, which is important if someone loses a phone.  We also have certificate-based authentication systems that allow us to send and receive signed and encrypted email between devices. If the situation demands it, we offer much more hardened device management. For example, if FIPS 140-2 compliance is required, then we have the flexibility choose to use a third-party software provider to help ensure that level of security is deployed.

WashingtonExec: What do you think is the most important advancement in health IT?

Anthony Hess: The widespread adoption of interoperable electronic health records will have a transformative effect on healthcare. We live in a time when the amount of information used in the diagnosis and treatment of disease is both substantial and constantly increasing. In the future, a staggering amount of molecular and genetic level data will be used by healthcare professionals, and a new generation of health IT infrastructure will be needed to store, analyze and share such content. Trying to store terabytes of data in paper records is simply not feasible, and the adoption of electronic health record systems is a necessary step in reaching the healthcare system of tomorrow.

WashingtonExec: What is the most interesting project that you’re working on right now?

Anthony Hess: I have been involved in a branch of biomedical science known as personalized medicine for many years. The premise of personalized medicine is that through the use of molecular and genetic methods, diseases can be very accurately identified and sub-typed so that treatment strategies can be tailored to the specific disease expression in a given patient. Much of the value of this approach still lies in the future, but significant progress has been made in both diagnostics and therapeutics in the last five years.  This is an exciting area of research that holds great promise.

WashingtonExec: You have a background in chemistry. How do you think we could inspire more students in this country to pursue chemistry and other life sciences?

Anthony Hess: You have to be exposed to the sciences at a fairly young age and in an appropriate way to spark a life-long curiosity in nature. That exposure could be as simple as collecting seashells and wondering how the little animals that live inside them survive and go about their daily business. Curiosity is the essential driving force behind the pursuit of science and children are the kings of curiosity. The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program is all about getting kids involved in engineering and science at an early age and letting them experience the art of what’s possible.

WashingtonExec: Who is someone that you look up to?

Anthony Hess: I have always been fascinated by the breadth of President Theodore Roosevelt’s accomplishments. His distinguished military and political careers, combined with working as a cowboy and being a renowned continental explorer, capped off with being the first American to win the Nobel Prize in any field, creates a life filled with fascinatingly diverse accomplishment.

WashingtonExec: What is your favorite restaurant or location to do business in?

Anthony Hess: When I’m at my Reston office, I’m a fan of PassionFish in the Reston Town Center. It is a really healthy place to eat that has an open, airy atmosphere — and it’s a great place to do business. Perhaps we will meet there someday!

 

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