Rancho Santa Fe resident selected to testify before Congress on health care technology funding


By Joe Tash

When Willa Fields testifies before Congress in a few weeks, she’ll have a simple message regarding federal funding to help doctors’ offices, clinics and hospitals convert to electronic medical records: “Don’t cut the money because we’re making progress, guys.”

Fields, 65, a Rancho Santa Fe resident, is a professor of nursing at San Diego State University and board chair of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), a national nonprofit group that supports improving health care through information technology and management systems.

She was chosen though a competitive interview process to serve on a panel of experts that will testify on the effectiveness of federal support for health information technology, specifically a $19 billion appropriation passed by Congress in 2009. The hearing will be conducted by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Technology and Innovation Subcommittee.

The funding approved by Congress is being used to reimburse doctors, hospitals and clinics for costs involved with converting their patient records to digital form.

Among the key questions the subcommittee is asking, said Fields, is whether the government is doing the right thing, and if its efforts are helping.

“My answer is, unequivocally, yes,” said Fields. “We’re well on the road so don’t stop the funding.”

Fields was originally scheduled to testify before the subcommittee on Thursday, Sept. 13. However, the hearing was postponed due to a conflict with a memorial service for the late astronaut Neil Armstrong. The hearing will be reset for late September or early October, said Dave Roberts, a Solana Beach City Councilman who serves on the staff of HIMSS as vice president of government relations.

“It’s just great having a San Diego County leader be recognized and able to do this,” said Roberts, a District Three candidate for County Supervisor, of Fields’ impending testimony.

HIMSS believes that one way to improve the quality of health care in the United States is to move toward electronic medical records, said Roberts.

“If you don’t have the right information at the right location, it’s not possible to do that,” he said.

“This is one thing where there seems to be agreement on Capitol Hill,” Roberts said. “This is an area where we should have a focus.”

Fields is a “nurse-informaticist,” meaning she is an expert on the use of information technology to improve patient care.

She recently concluded a research project at Sharp Grossmont Hospital, in which she and her team studied the impact of merging multiple computer systems into a single network, specifically regarding the work of nurses at the hospital. The study found that nurses had better information at their fingertips, and thus could make better health care decisions, under the new system, Fields said.

Other studies have found that patient outcomes improve once electronic medical record systems are established, she said.

The downside is that users such as doctors and nurses are not satisfied with the usability of electronic medical records systems, and would like them to be more user-friendly. “It’s not all wonderful,” she said.

However, she said the government’s support of converting medical offices and hospitals to electronic records has lifted a major barrier — cost — to the implementation of such systems. As more money is invested in health information technology by the private sector, usability of the systems will improve, she said.

With electronic medical records, she said, care can be coordinated more efficiently between different areas of a hospital, such as doctors, nurses and the pharmacy, eliminating errors and increasing safety. Information is also available quicker, which could make a difference in an urgent medical situation.

In the wake of the passage of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, Americans continue to debate the best way to improve health care. The issue was raised repeatedly during the Republican presidential primaries, and continues to come up in the presidential campaign between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Despite its high spending on health care, the United States lags in patient outcomes. A study by the World Health Organization found the United States ranked 37th among nations in the performance of its health care system. And the most recent statistics show the U.S. has a higher infant mortality rate than many European and Asian countries.

Fields said the large number of people without health insurance in the United States is a major factor in our less-than-stellar health outcomes. For example, she said less than 3 percent of the population of England is without health insurance, while the percentage is between 10 and 15 percent in the U.S.

“I think it’s unconscionable the United States doesn’t provide better health care for its residents,” she said.

Along with expanding access to health care, she said, conversion to electronic health records can improve quality and safety and lower costs. And that’s a message she’ll be happy to share with members of Congress.

“I’m flattered and honored and humbled to be able to represent HIMSS to this committee,” she said.