It's time for the Beacon Communities to shine

The 17 Beacon Communities are funded to the tune of millions of federal dollars--and the healthcare industry as a whole has a huge opportunity to get a significant return on that investment.

The Beacons, under the aegis of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, have been steaming along with a variety of pilot programs that use healthcare technology to improve healthcare delivery, quality and population health--and cut costs, to boot.  

In other words, the Beacons are working on problems that the entire industry is desperately trying to solve. And now they're poised to share what they've learned, not only from their successes, but also from the lessons they can share about what hasn't worked so well.

"We're looking [to] our Beacon Communities to play a substantive role in informing the national dialogue and in building allies across the country ... participating in learning collaboratives, interacting with trade associations--whatever that might look like," Jason Kunzman, an ONC project officer who oversees five of the Beacon Communities, said in a recent National eHealth Collaborative webcast that featured the Western New York Beacon Community and the Southeast Michigan Beacon Community

"In the true sense of what a Beacon is [what they're doing] doesn't matter unless someone is actually looking at the light of the beacon," Kunzman said. "So we're looking at 2012 and beyond as an opportunity to really get the word out about the approaches and successes and lessons learned that each of our awardees have assembled during the course of their time with us at ONC."

Kunzman shared the progress and aims of several Beacon Community objectives, from better health information exchange to fighting chronic disease through mobile health and wellness programs:

Build and strengthen health IT infrastructure and exchange capabilities

"This is where we hope that data will, as [U.S. Chief Technology Officer] Todd Park says, be liberated, and full longitudinal pictures of patients' health status will be made available safely and securely through both traditional and non-traditional partners across the care continuum," Kunzman said

Improve cost, quality and population health

"This embodies leveraging investments in health IT to achieve the three-part aim of improved health, better healthcare delivery and a lower cost. I'm happy to report that our quarterly submission data is starting to show movement in the measures that Beacon Communities have chosen to pursue so we are well on our way of being able to demonstrate improvement, here."

Test innovative approaches to performance measurement, technology integration, and care delivery

"This is where the real fun happens," Kunzman said. "One of the innovative technologies that [the Beacons] are pursuing is around mobile health technology as a consumer outreach and wellness strategy. We have a number of communities that are working to substantively empower patients and their care through patient-reported outcomes and shared decision-support tools. We also have communities using wireless technologies to break down the traditional barriers of care and enabling emergency medical personnel out in the field to play a more active role in getting the right care to the patient in a more timely manner." 

And these are just a small part of the program's objectives and output.

"Our mantra for calendar year 2012 has been and will continue to be this notion of finishing and continuing strong. Our Beacon Communities have all worked hard to set up the infrastructure for sustainable paths for improvement," Kunzman said

Everyone will benefit from that. And everyone--from payers to hospitals and health systems to large physician groups and individual physicians to professional associations to the media to the public--must not only hold ONC to that promise but also take advantage of the opportunity. - Gienna

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