Analyst: Blumenthal's replacement needs to be more 'operationally focused'

In the aftermath of Dr. David Blumenthal's announcement yesterday that he will leave his post as health IT coordinator to return to Harvard, where he has served as a professor of medicine and healthcare policy, the focus now turns to who, ultimately, will fill his shoes.

While no names have been mentioned yet, Chilmark Research health IT analyst John Moore believes that whoever gets the job will be less of an academic and more hands on, considering that the ONC is progressing from developing a policy framework to a more "tactical mode."

"The ONC's next phase will require a different type of leadership," Moore told FierceHealthIT. "They need to get someone who's very operationally focused."

Still, Fred Trotter, a Houston-based healthcare software activist, told Kaiser Health News, which broke the story of Blumenthal's departure, isn't crazy about the recent development. "Changing horses in midstream is not a good idea right now," he said.

According to KHN, Blumenthal's departure likely was spurred by his inability to retain his tenure at Harvard had he stayed away longer than two years.

"As you know, I have told Secretary Sebelius that I will be returning to my academic home this spring, as was planned when I accepted the position of National Coordinator for Health Information Technology," Blumenthal said in a memo to ONC colleagues, obtained by FierceHealthIT. "While we still have important work to do together, including the assurance of a productive transition for ONC, now is the time for me to express my deep gratitude to all of my ONC colleagues, and my admiration for all you have accomplished."

Blumenthal has been at the forefront of the push for IT in healthcare since his appointment in March 2009. Specifically, he has helped guide Meaningful Use efforts brought about by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which allotted $27 billion in incentives for healthcare providers to switch from paper to digital health records. 

In a letter to HHS colleagues, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said her agency has "taken great pride in the far-reaching work that David and his outstanding team have accomplished," but added, "there's much more work to be done."

Speaking with FierceEMR recently, Blumenthal spoke optimistically about his efforts with ONC.

"In some ways, the most powerful thing we can do, as I've said many times, is to get people on the escalator toward increasingly sophisticated and beneficial uses of electronic health records. And I do believe that once our nation's health professionals experience the power of electronic health records, they will become a source of innovation and demand for ever-improving functionality, for improving usability, for improving capability--and that will be a very powerful force for change."

He echoed those sentiments in his memo to employees, with specific emphasis on the HITECH Act.

"I believe the key factor for success has been, and will continue to be, the concept of 'meaningful use,' he wrote. "The HITECH Act recognized that EHR adoption alone would not bring about the transformative improvements that are possible with health information technology....HITECH gave ONC a major role in assisting health professionals and institutions to make these critical changes in the way care is delivered and we have begun this work in earnest.

For more
- read this Kaiser Health News piece