Broad gaps in data handling

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When it comes to the adoption of information management systems in long-term care, it appears there's reason for both optimism and frustration.

On one hand, the pool of IT vendors that cater to the long-term care sector is growing, with their solutions addressing HIPAA and MDS billing requirements, as well as a range of other clinical and financial functions. Beyond that, a growing number of skilled nursing facilities are recognizing the value IT can bring to their overall operations and are finally willing to make the leap.

The downside, however, is that the number of IT adopters is still believed to be quite small, despite the slew of industry-specific requirements and challenges that underscore the need for improved information management systems.

"There's still an enormous disconnect in long-term care," said Brian Dimit, sales and marketing specialist for Keane, Inc., Boston. "More people in long-term care understand they need a better system, but they are struggling to make it a reality." Through its Healthcare Solutions Division, Keane provides a suite of clinical and financial software products to long-term care organizations.

Although it's difficult to know the exact number of facilities currently outfitted with information management systems – and the degree to which they are being used – industry experts estimate that only about 10% of organizations are maximizing the value of IT. Roughly 80% are considered IT minimalists -- that is, those which are somewhat comfortable with computers and use them for data mining and other lower level documentation. The remaining 10% are "technologically in the dark," according to Carl Mickiewicz, senior director of operations for QuickCARE, Frisco, TX.

"We are focusing on the 80% that may be comfortable using computers to at least some degree, but haven't taken it to the next level," he said.

Falling short

Not surprisingly, budget constraints have played a key role in IT underutilization. Even though the cost of both hardware and software solutions has become more affordable in recent years – with many sophisticated software systems costing less than $25,000 -- many organizations are still challenged to find resources that can be dedicated to IT.

"The problem is organizations sometimes need money to save money," said John Ederer, president of American Data, Sauk City, WI. "There are always start-up costs involved and they aren't sure where to find it."

He should know. As a 30-year veteran of nursing home administration, Ederer has dealt with those challenges firsthand, which is why his company has designed an electronic charting system that can help organizations improve financial and clinical processes, and maximize resources.

Providers that do buy information management systems are often hesitant to build on

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