As CMS chief, Berwick will embrace IT as long as it improves quality

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You've no doubt heard the news that Dr. Donald M. Berwick will be named administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Berwick, founder and CEO of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Institute for Healthcare Improvement, has been rumored for the job almost since Barack Obama was elected president in November 2008, and CMS has lacked a permanent head for two-and-a-half years.

After Dr. Mark McClellan left the post in October 2006, Leslie Norwalk and then Kerry Weems served as interim administrators for the balance of President George W. Bush's term in office, and Charlene Frizzera has been acting administrator since Obama took office in January 2009. As a career bureaucrat rather than a political appointment, Frizzera has largely stayed under the radar while any major policy announcements have come from the White House or HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

That's about to change.

Berwick, already accustomed to a high profile in his tireless efforts to improve the quality of care in the United States and around the world, will oversee provision of the $25 billion or so in Medicare and Medicaid bonus payments for "meaningful use" of EMRs. (Remember, the regulations on how to qualify for the program are coming from CMS; the Office of the National Coordinator for Healthcare Information Technology is responsible only for standards and certification related to the technology itself.)

You can be sure Berwick will work closely with the national coordinator, Dr. David Blumenthal, a fellow Harvard physician, to implement the incentive program. Berwick hasn't always been a proponent of health IT, but, as several people have told me over the years, he's been brought, like many other physicians, "kicking and screaming" into the digital age. He rightly sees health IT as a tool, not a cure, but long has pushed for interventions that hospitals still stuck in the 20th century can embrace. Still, I vividly recall the closing keynote session at the IHI's 2006 National Forum on Quality Improvement in Health Care, featuring the legendary Dr. Larry Weed, who has been advocating for computers in medicine for more than half a century. Berwick introduced Weed as "my hero."

That should give the health IT community some reassurance that Berwick will embrace technology in his never-ending battle to boost the quality of medical care. Your job is to make sure the technology works. - Neil

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