Blumenthal finds his footing

Dr. David Blumenthal has been on the job as national coordinator for health IT for just about three months now, after the Obama administration decided to bring in its own leadership to spearhead the multibillion-dollar federal investment in EMRs and related technology. For a while, Blumenthal kept a low profile. Not anymore.

Since President George W. Bush created the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology in 2004, the coordinator--in the person of Dr. David Brailer and then Dr. Robert Kolodner--had to contend with a tiny budget and fight for even a shred of respect in national policymaking circles. The job came with a bully pulpit and little else.

With the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act earlier this year, the national coordinator finally has a real raison d'être: decide how best to spend a net $19.2 billion--really more like $32 billion in gross funding--to get doctors and hospitals to adopt EMRs, and assure that the systems can talk to each other. The nation's eyes and ears are upon Blumenthal.

"Everyone's on pause right now, because everyone is waiting to see how money is going to flow, what the rules are and what meaningful use is," Brailer said in an interview with CNN. "A lot of vendors have reported that customers have stopped looking at electronic health records," the former coordinator added.

It's taken a few months, but Blumenthal, the former director of the Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital and Partners HealthCare System in Boston, seems to be finding his footing. Case in point is his leadership at a Nationwide Health Information Network meeting in Washington, as you'll see in one of FierceEMR's top stories this week.

He's also started to give some keynote speeches and sit down for in-depth interviews, like the one that Information Week published this morning. In that story, Blumenthal clarifies an earlier statement that the stimulus is a "down payment" on broad healthcare reform. "If we want to improve quality and efficiency to ensure people get the kind of care they need rather than what we truly have, you need to undertake some kind of preparation. Part of that preparation is improving the capacity for managing information. Health IT is core to that. If healthcare reform gets passed, having invested in electronic health records before the bill was enacted and implemented will give us a head start," he said.

Blumenthal also said that he expects to see specialty certification boards start requiring health IT competency. "I don't want to presume to know which boards will do what first, but I can tell you that the American Board of Pediatrics has already done this and the American Board of Internal Medicine has agreed to this in principle," he said.

He's a little more cagey when discussing how ONC might define meaningful use and about whether the Certification Commission for Healthcare Information Technology will have some competition in certifying EMRs, but I've heard from a reliable source that Blumenthal plans to meet this month with some people--and I don't know which ones--that are interested in starting up competing certification programs.

There's obviously plenty still up in the air right now, but some of the pieces of the ONC puzzle are starting to fall into place. - Neil