Kaiser asks for a second opinion

Using a recent Kaiser initiative as an example, I listed all the obstacles to automating healthcare. Was I too harsh?

I always get a big reaction to my column whenever I target a specific company, such as when I vented about AT&T in February (at the time I didn’t even know about the CEO's $160 million boondoggle retirement package – yikes).

It's not that corporate America is hanging on my every word; it’s that they have software filters alerting them to relevant articles, which then make the rounds by e-mail. Then I get a callback from their PR person, usually right before lunchtime, for some reason.

This week the call came from Kaiser Permanente, whose digital health care megaproject I discussed in last week’s column. Would I like to come tour a Kaiser facility and see how the system is working?

I would, and it would be fun, but I’m really not qualified to evaluate a patient records system. Instead, I’ll make a counteroffer to Dr. Andrew Wiesenthal, Kaiser’s lead physician on the project: come to InfoWorld’s studios in San Francisco and do a fireside chat with me about the HealthConnect project that we can broadcast on InfoWorld TV for all to see.

I promise to be fair and evenhanded and to ask both what has and hasn’t worked. I would also like to invite, for an IT perspective on the project, Kaiser’s new CIO or its CTO as well.

My Kaiser column sparked an eruption of Talkback comments, including one from Dr. Wiesenthal defending the project and from Kaiser nurses, critics, and labor union members. Part of the debate is about Kaiser specifically and part about the potential for leveraging IT in health care in general, which is what interests me the most.

So let's put it all on the table. How about a follow-up appointment, doctor?

The Turk Without a Pulse. In a 2005 column I briefly mentioned Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, at the time a new experiment from Amazon to provide a self-service marketplace for remote human piecework. Well, it seems the Turk has continued to grow and now contains hundreds of repetitive tasks that any human with Web access can do and get paid for, a few cents at a time.

As of today there are about 180 "Human Intelligence Tasks" available, from transcribing podcasts to tagging to inputting vendor information for the state of Illinois (let's hope they don’t reveal Social Security numbers).

The Turk must be working, if more and more "employers" are posting these virtual tasks. Is this something corporate America should think about doing on a large scale? Maybe the U.S. government could use it for improved intelligence gathering? And more interestingly, when will some smart coder start writing intelligent scripts that can do some of these tasks automatically and get paid five cents a millisecond? Why can’t the Dragon Naturally Speaking people do the podcast transcription, for example?

Stay tuned – we’ll keep monitoring this.