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Size Doesn't Matter When You're an Early Adopter of Health IT

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, April 6, 2010

When you think of innovation in healthcare technology, you probably picture a large academic medical center or a large hospital system. But small and rural hospitals are perfectly capable of making investments in new technologies.

In fact, one might argue that small rural hospitals that adopt new technologies are even more adventurous than the big guys. They have a lot more to lose.

In our HealthLeaders Media Industry Survey 2010, we asked technology leaders to describe their organization's IT culture. Most (43%) answered "wait until proven." But the second most-popular choice was "early adopter," with 37% choosing the response, up from 34% the previous year. (Another 20% said they are "behind the curve.")

One surprising stat—of those who chose the "early adopter response," most (31%) were small hospitals. It wasn't an overwhelming majority—technology leaders from large and mid-sized hospitals chose that response 23% and 24%, respectively. The rest (18%) were critical access hospitals with fewer than 25 beds.

I interviewed Roger Neal, vice president and chief information officer of the 192-bed Duncan (OK) Regional Hospital, about why his organization is among the early adopters of new technologies. Safety and efficiency are the key reasons, he says. For small hospitals, especially, it's a good idea to adopt new technology before your competitors—that way you have time to work with vendors and ensure successful implementation.

"Especially for smaller rural hospitals, being an early adopter puts you ahead of the curve and gives you a little more time to implement a solution correctly with more support from the company. This makes it a safer system for our patients and staff and gives us some efficiency early on with a new technology so we get a jump start in the market," he says.

One main benefit of being an early adopter is the impression on staff, physicians, and the community. The goal is to show them that the organization is working to be cutting-edge but also that it is doing so in a sensible manner. "It shows a commitment to providing the safest and highest quality care we can in a rural setting," he says.

Of course, there are plenty of reasons that not all rural hospitals take this approach.

"Any early adoption program comes with some risk," Neal says. "Will the company be around, will the solution work, what have we not thought of during the implementation? But in the end, we've always found that adopting early on the right projects gives us a much better position and outweighs the struggles we'll experience moving a newer technology forward."

One trend I've noticed is that small, rural, and community hospitals are starting to take more risks. Some technologies previously found only in academic medical centers or large hospitals and systems are migrating into areas that haven't had access to these resources in the past. And that, the healthcare leaders I talk to say, keeps patients and physicians from migrating out of those areas. As markets get more and more competitive—and as technology gets increasingly advanced—being out ahead on technology when practical seems like a smart move.

For more examples of early adopters, check out my May cover story on medical breakthroughs, which describes new technology in use in a variety of settings. Is your organization an early adopter of any size? I'd love to hear your story—you can e-mail me at the address below or connect with me on Twitter.


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