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Hi, I'll Be Your Computer

January 1, 2006
by Richard L. Peck, Editor-in-Chief
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    Have you ever been cautioned against anthropomorphizing the behavior of your pets? That means ascribing human emotions and motives to the quite natural activities of animals (for example, that warm greeting that Fido gives you when you come home at night might really mean "Hey, here comes dinner!"). Needless to say, this viewpoint is controversial and, to some, hard-hearted at best. And even the most cool-eyed naturalists will tell you that the last word on animal psychology is far from in. To many, though, anthropomorphizing is simply just too fanciful.

That's fine. I'll do it anyway-although, in this case, I'll apply it to information technology (IT) systems. Like, I suspect, most of our readers, I have only the faintest idea of how computers and computer software really work. I know that it's great when they do and, when they don't, they really don't. There's seldom a halfway state, such as you might experience with mechanical systems, like automobiles, that warn you with various clunks and wobbles; with IT, you're up or you're down.

Lately, though, I've had experiences that are making me wonder whether IT systems aren't really sort of, kind of human. Not like the sinister HAL in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, with "his" smooth-voiced treachery. Rather, it seems to me that IT systems really do get tired and run down; sometimes they even pass out and find it difficult to wake up.

Cases in point: On a recent visit to a world-renowned medical institution, I sat and watched while a nurse moaned, groaned, and finally stomped out of the examining room in frustration while waiting for the facility's computer records system to unfreeze. The poor thing took more than 20 minutes to show any signs of life whatsoever. My tentative diagnosis: You, major medical facility, have a tired IT system, close to overwhelmed with the demands placed on it. The impression that I was on to something only intensified recently when the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles computer system crashed four times in one day (severely displeasing, as you might imagine, an ever-growing line of grumbling customers). One can only imagine the demands placed on these machines and their software.

My computer here in the office seems to fall asleep over long weekends and holidays. When I arrive in the morning, it takes ten times longer than usual to boot up and perform various functions, but steadily increases in speed and efficiency as time goes by-just like you (or me) getting out of bed in the morning.

The point of all this is that our IT systems are like anybody else-they need paying attention to. That means more than administering TLC or supporting them with the latest and greatest hardware and software (such as those LTC programs that make the Minimum Data Set not only workable but fiscally valuable). A look at the cover story in this issue ("Moving to the Next Generation of IT,") shows why.

It discusses IT's next frontier, the electronic health record (EHR). Given the realities and perplexities of today's long-term care, any talk of creating a common EHR that will expedite communication at all levels of healthcare might seem like a pipe dream. Who has the time, energy, or money for this? You'll discover, though, that there are good business reasons to study and, to the extent possible, get involved with the EHR movement-for one, you risk losing touch with your local market if you don't.

So, let's pay close attention to that moody, demanding, often perplexing but wonderfully helpful entity known as IT. Who knows, it could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

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