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Blumenthal: ONC Shifting From HIT Policy to Implementation

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, March 8, 2010

In the near future, electronic health records and other health information technology will be as accessible and important as the stethoscope, the operating room, or the exam table. And there's no question that that the federal government will be required to support the acquisition of health technology, added National Coordinator for Health Information Technology David Blumenthal, MD, at the HIMSS convention in Atlanta last week.

"It will be assumed as a professional attribute," he said.

Blumenthal did talk about the meaningful use of EHRs—no question the hot topic at this year's conference—saying that the HITECH provisions are an "ambitious" and "evolving vision."

But he also discussed other ONC programs, saying that while the past year has been focused on policy, the office will "now begin the process of implementation."

Among the programs he highlighted were a regional extension program aimed at helping small physician groups, especially those in rural and urban areas with underserved populations, become meaningful users of EMRs and a program that will support community health information exchanges.

The ONC is not expecting change to happen by itself, Blumenthal said. And when change does come, it will begin at the local level.

He cited the Beacon Community Program, announced late last year, as an example—the agency received about 130 applications for 15 slots in the program, which will give $220 million in seed money to support communities that are expected to have higher-than-average EHR adoption rates. An additional $15 million will subsequently support technical assistance to the communities and an independent evaluation of the program.

Many communities have told the ONC that simply coming together to apply for these funds has changed the way stakeholders from different organizations interact. The process, Blumenthal said, may turn out to be more important than the relatively small number of facilities that will get the money.

Blumenthal, apparently still in an Olympic mood, compared the future of HIT to speed skating or downhill slalom racing. You have to move fast, you can't miss a turn, and you have to expect the unexpected.

"I'm optimistic. I think the wind is at our back in so many ways," he said. "So many see this as the audacity of hope—I see it as common sense."

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