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David Blumenthal: Committed HIT Advocate

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, December 2, 2010

"It makes them better at what they do, rather than just reporting what they do."

In our annual HealthLeaders 20, we profile individuals who are changing healthcare for the better. Some are longtime industry fixtures; others would clearly be considered outsiders. Some are revered; others would not win many popularity contests. All of them are playing a crucial role in making the healthcare industry better. This is David Blumenthal's story.

David Blumenthal, MD, isn't very well known outside of the healthcare industry.
But among healthcare providers—especially IT leaders—he's kind of a rock star. When he speaks at healthcare conferences (he is a popular keynote choice) attendees line up afterward to have photos taken with him.

If you've ever attended one of Blumenthal's speeches, then you've heard the story of how he ended his long-time love affair with his paper prescription pad and embraced electronic health systems, eventually becoming their biggest champion in 2009, when President Barack Obama appointed him as the national coordinator for health information technology and charged him with building a nationwide health information system and supporting the widespread meaningful use of health information technology.

The story goes like this.

In 2002, as a practicing primary care physician at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital/Partners HealthCare System and Harvard Medical School, Blumenthal met his first electronic health record.

"It was not a match made in heaven," he admits. But he saw that his younger colleagues liked the EHR. And they expected he would use it, too. So one day he was using the EHR to order a prescription for a sulfur-based medicine for a patient with a urinary tract infection. The patient, it turns out, was allergic to sulfur.

Maybe the pharmacy would have caught the potentially fatal error. Maybe the patient would have said something. But the EHR's red-letter alert meant that Blumenthal didn't have to depend on maybes that day.

When asked what it is about that story that resonates with physicians and healthcare leaders, Blumenthal's response is as carefully phrased as his speeches and has the clipped intonation of the busy physician that he is.  

"I don't know if it's effective," he says. "I tell it because it's true. It at least enables me as a physician to talk to other physicians, other nurses, and to show that, A, I understand what they're going through and, B, I think there's value in going through the effort of learning how to use an electronic health system."

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