So there we were, a few hundred people sitting in a darkened room at Chicago's mega convention center, McCormick Place. Craig Mundie, chief research and strategy officer at Microsoft, had just wowed us with demonstrations of technology that was straight out of the Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise sci-fi hit, "Minority Report." Then, former Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen brought us down from our IT high.

What we really need is technology that helps with basic care, said Bredesen, author of the newly published health reform book, Fresh Medicine. For instance, he noted that one-third of diabetics fail to get an annual foot exam. Clinical evidence shows that one in four diabetics will develop foot problems, so getting an annual exam is a highly recommended part of a care plan. Harnessing technology to improve those numbers could dramatically improve care for diabetics and reduce costs considerably.

Bredesen's comments weren't necessarily in contradiction to some of the topics being discussed at Microsoft's two-day Connected Health Conference, but they were a reminder that cool tools are just that, toys. What health care practitioners really need are systems, software and devices that enhance their ability to provide safe and effective care. To his credit, Mundie did begin his presentation by saying that computers need to move away from being tools for doing the same old thing faster and become assistants.

To be sure, there was a fair amount of uber-cool technology on display during his keynote address. He talked about how new gaming technology that uses avatars and 3D cameras or touch-screen-flat surfaces may be used in health care settings. It was dazzling. But Mundie also discussed the importance of finding better, quicker and more intelligent ways of sharing data. He suggested that cloud computing is the future, where by patients, physicians, hospitals, pharmacies, insurers and others share data effortlessly.

It will also be incumbent on providers to truly engage patients, with technology being at the forefront of that effort. Joshua Seidman, director of meaningful use at the Office of the National Coordinator, appearing a panel later in the morning, said patient engagement would undoubtedly be a part of the next stages of meaningful use regulations. He added that meaningful use and accountable care would be very closely tied together. "Accountable care is made possible by meaningful use of electronic health records," he said.

Seidman and HHS Chief Technology Office Todd Park explained how the government—yes, the government—is actually out in front of the private sector to some degree. CMS, DoD and the VA, through project Blue Button, have given patients immediate access to personal health information.

Park said the technology behind Blue Button is so simple that it was "absurd to not do it" and let patients "get their data." He emphasized the word "their."

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