HIMSS 2006: U.S. Agency Pushes Use of EHRs

SAN DIEGO -- In a new tactic to build support for the use of healthcare IT, the George Bush administration office charged with promoting the use of electronic health records (EHRs) is setting its sights on consumers. The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) is launching four new "breakthrough projects" designed to help spur the adoption of EHRs.

Kelly Cronin, director of the newly created Office of Programs and Coordination within the ONC, unveiled the new priorities, which will span the next one to three years, last week at the annual Health Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) conference in San Diego. While the ONC traditionally has worked to seed the market by encouraging physicians and hospitals to automate their patient records, the office now will begin targeting patients themselves. The ONC envisions the projects generating consumer demand that will help boost the use of EHRs among physicians, Cronin said.

"We still have issues with the adoption gap, [and] we really need to be pushing forward quickly," Cronin said. "This is really a year that we can demonstrate how the consumer can benefit from this agenda. It's an important aspect that we have been focusing on recently and trying to determine our priorities."

The projects will be focused in four areas: biosurveillance, EHRs, chronic care management, and consumer empowerment. The ONC will establish a working group in each area that will provide recommendations for the private sector, she added.

The biosurveillance project will include the launch of a nationwide public health monitoring network to be used during a pandemic or bioterrorist attack to send lab results electronically from emergency departments to public health agencies within 24 hours, Cronin said.

The ONC also will shepherd the development, within a year, of standardized, widely available software tools for physicians and patients to access historical and current lab results online.

The chronic care project will be designed to support the widespread use of secure messaging to foster better communication between patients and health care providers, she added.

Finally, the consumer empowerment project will support the formation of electronic registries that would allow consumers to access summaries of their own healthcare data.

The ONC on March 7 will announce more details about the projects, which will then begin in the summer or fall. "We expect to have real projects in the field in the later part of the year," Cronin said.

Cronin also noted that the ONC has restructured itself, creating four new divisions: the Office of Health IT Adoption, the Office of Interoperability and Standards, the Office of Programs and Coordination, and the Office of Policy and Research. President Bush created the ONC in May 2004 to carry out the mandate for all Americans to have an EHR within 10 years.

Despite the new projects, the ONC plans this year to continue to support the burgeoning groups of healthcare organizations across the country that are joining together to share regional patient data electronically, Cronin said.

There are about 66 regional health information organizations (RHIOs), and they are either in the planning stages or have begun to share patient data electronically, she said. In addition, 30 states have introduced or passed legislation that supports the statewide adoption of health-related IT.

However, there is a lack of guidance about how to cost-effectively replicate RHIOs across communities, Cronin said. The ONC this year will study RHIOs that are working to connect healthcare organizations across states and develop best practices that other fledgling RHIOs can use to launch operations.
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