ATLANTA Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said at the VHA Leadership Conference here on Monday that the healthcare industry must not only transform for the future, but that it has a lot of catching up to do about 30 years' worth, no less as it relates to technology and how consumers expect technology to make their lives simpler and more efficient while saving them time and effort.

"I'm actually talking about getting caught up with the past," the former Georgia congressman told about 2,400 attendees at the conference, who include physicians, nurses, pharmacists and technology suppliers, among others.

The conference, being held at the Georgia World Congress Center, is sponsored by VHA (Irving, Texas), a national healthcare cooperative with some 2,400 member healthcare institutions.

To illustrate the lagging role of technology in healthcare, Gingrich assumed the persona that many might find surprising for this fierce defender of the Republican-propelled "Contract with America" his role as grandfather.

He told the story of how his granddaughter at age 3 knew that her plastic set of keys should have a remote locking system, and that she knew she was to "punch in" the numbers on her plastic cellphone vs. dialing them. On top of that, she knew he was only pretending to talk on his cellphone with her because the phone was not flipped open.

Then, he asked the audience to contrast that level of intuitive understanding of contemporary technology with the fact that in that same year, the Florida legislature passed a law requiring that doctors print more legibly on medical forms something that, legislation or not, was unlikely to happen, Gingrich said.

But his point was clear: modern technology has advanced and the healthcare system hasn't kept pace.

Gingrich, a proponent of electronic health records (EHRs), said that the U.S. system of healthcare is faced with an either/or path, meaning that it will follow in one of two directions.

"We're either going toward a national system and [we] will ration [healthcare], or we're going to a free market system," Gingrich said, noting that an entrepreneurial system with a science and technology-based model produces "more choices at lower cost."

Gingrich told his audience that as a private citizen today, he splits his time on issues of health through the Center for Health Transformation (Washington), which he found- ed, and fighting terrorism. He said that issues of healthcare are about "30 times more complex than terrorism."

To truly transform healthcare in the 21st century will, he said, require three things: individual change and institutional or provider change, both of which will be transformed by advances in science.

The Center for Health Transformation holds that there will be more change in scientific knowledge during the next 25 years than there was in the entire previous 100 years.

Healthcare makes up about 15% of the gross national product, with about $1.6 trillion spent every year.

An important part of what needs to be one of the drivers of change in the 21st century healthcare system is quality, he said, with pricing based accordingly. If the quality of a healthcare product or service is high, a consumer will be willing to pay more in this new world. If the quality is low, those providers will not be able to expect the same level of fees. All of this falls under the umbrella of "pay for performance," which is one of the hot topics of discussion in healthcare today.

Medication errors kill between thousands of people a year, a fact he contrasted with the airline industry, which spends about $30,000 per pilot for independent training each year. The point, Gingrich said, is that Americans won't tolerate airplane crashes killing people, but we're currently tolerating deaths at the hands of the healthcare system.

And speaking of the statistically very safe mode of airline travel, he said, "That's the level of safety I try to bring to your life."

So, he asked, if quality standards lead to accountability, which leads to lives saved and better outcomes, shouldn't then the cost of care, logically speaking, be higher?

"Technology is only expensive in the boutique" production, not in "mass production," he said, which is enabled by rising economies like China and India, which Gingrich's foundation notes are the "lowest cost producers on the planet."

Gingrich noted an initiative introduced last week that would allow patients to create their own EHR for free. He said that in 10 years, patients in the U.S. should be part of a system where they can get daily updates on their own healthcare from providers and the one technology that will decrease costs is the utilization of EHRs by all providers.

Gingrich said that a group of more than 30 vendors currently is working on standards of interdependency among healthcare providers and will have them formulated by the end of this year. He also envisions that level of connectedness to be useful in the event of a biological warfare attack on the U.S.

Much as President Dwight Eisenhower envisioned the interstate highway system to connect military installations in the U.S., he said an interconnected healthcare system could also "mobilize in a matter of minutes" in the event of a bioterrorist attack to respond to such a threat quickly.

Trial lawyers also took a hit from Gingrich. He charged that they are driving up healthcare costs of with medical malpractice suits that provide neither healthcare nor justice. "Trial lawyers want the money, [and] you have the money," he told the audience. "This is a straight-up fight; it's not complicated."

Among his proposals was a Congress-sponsored bill outlawing attorney advertising, advertising which he said encourages people to think that they have been wronged and to assign blame.

Regarding the nursing shortage, he argued that it is the product of the way nurses are treated in the system. To attract and keep nurses, he said, hospitals must "change the quality of the job nurses do."