Blumenthal doesn't tip hand on meaningful use, highlights non-financial aspects of ARRA

Dr. David Blumenthal has been national coordinator for health information technology for a little more than six months now, and for all the health IT meetings I go to, teleconferences I listen in on and webinars I participate in, Wednesday was the first time I'd had the opportunity to hear him speak.

In delivering the opening keynote to the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME) Fall CIO Forum in Indian Wells, Calif., Blumenthal didn't break a whole lot of new ground, but he did bring the national EMR strategy into sharper focus, give an update on some progress within the federal government, demonstrate his deep passion for healthcare quality improvement, and even put the vendor community on notice. (See the story in this week's issue for more on his vendor-related comments.)

"You all are the very core of our success," Blumenthal told this gathering of CIOs in the California desert. It was nothing they didn't already know. He did say, however, that even without the healthcare reform being debated in Washington right now, the HITECH Act--the health IT portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act--still is "unprecedented" in the scope of change it will effect.

Blumenthal highlighted four things that flow from HITECH: "meaningful use" of EMRs--something we all know about; the Health IT Policy Committee and Health IT Standards Committee to advise HHS; privacy and security of health data, symbolized by the tightening of HIPAA; and, of course, the federal subsidy program. Blumenthal believes that the last point probably gets more attention than it deserves. "There's the money, which is important, but it isn't the whole thing," he said.

"What Congress has basically asked us to do with this legislation is to change the practice of medicine," Blumenthal said. "It's really a matter of change management rather than technology."

Blumenthal is prohibited by federal ethics standards from discussing deliberations on the forthcoming parameters for meaningful use, but he reiterated that a proposed rule will be out by the end of the year, and that HHS is still on target to finalize the definition next spring, following a 60-day public comment period on the proposal. He also said that his office is talking with other federal agencies with experience encrypting and securing sensitive electronic data, something that will be hugely important in healthcare as more patient information is computerized.

Blumenthal added that the health IT extension centers will be modeled after the long-established USDA Agricultural Extension Service. "This is all about technology transfer from government to industry," he said. He also called on the hundreds of healthcare CIOs in attendance to provide leadership and educate hospital CEOs about the importance of information to their organizational missions. - Neil