Investment in medical information technologies reached $15 billion in 1996. However, these technologies have not had the wide impact predicted in streamlining bureaucracy, improving communications, and raising the effectiveness of care. In this series, we identify how such technologies are being used to improve quality and performance, the future directions for advancement, and the policy and research developments required to maximize public benefit from these technologies. Each of these articles focuses on a different type of information technology: (1) information systems to manage medical transactions; (2) physician-support technologies to improve medical practice; and (3) patient-focused technologies designed to change how people manage their own care. This first article of a 3-part series examines the successes of and opportunities for using advanced information systems that track and manage medical transactions for large populations to improve performance. Examples of such systems include: HEDIS, which gathers standardized data from health plans on quality of care; the USQA Health Services Research Program, which tracks treatment patterns and outcomes for 14 million insurance members; Ford's program to collect medical data for over 600,000 employees; and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care's system of computerized laboratory, pharmacy, ambulatory, and hospital admission records for its 1.5 million members. Data from these systems have led to modest improvements in knowledge and practice patterns for some diseases. Significant barriers are slowing efforts to add outcomes data to these databases and broaden the databases to cover larger populations. Nonetheless, existing data in currently evolving systems could be used to greater benefit in tracking public health and in identifying more effective treatments and causes of diseases.