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ONC’s Newest CMO is a Physician at Heart

April 13, 2015
by Gabriel Perna
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Thomas Mason, M.D. the new CMO of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC), is so dedicated to practicing medicine that even though he shifted to a federal government role six weeks ago, he is still providing care in his spare time. In Chicago. 
Mason, a primary care internal medicine physician by trade, came to Washington D.C. and the ONC from the Chicago-based Cook County Hospital and Health Systems, where he was a CMIO and a medical director and the physician lead for the patient-centered medical home (PCMH). In his new role,  he is dedicated to helping ONC transform the healthcare system to achieve an “interoperable learning health system.” However, he also doesn’t want to lose touch with the ground-level physicians, with whom he spent 15 years in the trenches. 
That’s why Dr. Mason spends his free time flying to Chicago, where he is an active clinician, voluntarily practicing at a clinic until he gets his license in the Washington D.C./Maryland area. “It’s essential to the role of CMO to have that experience as active clinician…it’s important to me to say connected to the end-user experience, to make sure as we transition to alternative payment models and delivery system reform that I’m connected and can give feedback to the [government] on what’s happening on the ground,” he said. 
Mason spoke on his new role, the reaction to various proposed measures from the government on Stages 2 and 3 of meaningful use, and more with Healthcare Informatics’ Senior Editor Gabriel Perna at the 2015 Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS) Conference, held in Chicago. Below are excerpts from their conversation. 
Why did you make the move to the ONC? 
I’ve worked [in Chicago[ in local government. I see it as a transition from local to federal government, to broaden my reach to give back and impact…to help design the learning interoperable health system that’s essential for delivery and payment system reforms that the [Department of Health and Human Services] recently announced. 
The timing is perfect for me to bring my field-level experience to the ONC to help inform policy and rulemaking, to give that perspective of what’s happening on the ground to be able to inform policy in terms of the changes that need to happen to make the system for efficient. 
 Let's talk meaningful use, what can you say about the recent changes that were announced on Friday? What should providers know?
It's important for me to say this is a notice for proposed rulemaking. We encourage providers, consumers, stakeholders to give feedback on the rules. The rules are in alignment with three key HHS goals: 1) To improve the way we deliver care 2) to improve the way providers are paid and 3) and to share information more broadly with providers, consumers, hospitals so the information is there to make informed decisions, while considering privacy and security. As we've move forward in designing a system that provides better care, spending dollars more wisely, and a healthier nation. 
Why did the view, download, and transmit requirement get knocked down to one person?
Again, this is a notice of proposed rulemaking. I do encourage that stakeholders provide feedback. This is a proposed rule. I feel a lot of people may not be aware of the rulemaking process. We want to hear feedback. 
ONC is dedicated to consumer engagement. We stand strong in our position that we need information to be available for consumers, when and where they need it, and the information needs to be meaningful. I spent time in Cook County developing the patient portal system in a way that communicated meaningful information, allowing patients to be engaged and informed about their health as well. 
Obviously, you can’t say much on specific measures for proposed rules. When it comes to Stage 3, and bringing everyone to the same timeline in 2017, what is your broader vision and long-term goal in this regard?
This is an example of us listening to feedback from providers and key stakeholders, and incorporating information that has been gathered at listening sessions and been given directly to ONC and CMS as changes that need to be made to make the system more efficient and make sense for providers on the ground. 
What feedback are you hearing from physicians, when you’re on the ground-level with them?
The feedback I'm hearing from physicians is related to usability. That’s something that I've spent a good portion of career addressing with the provider community that I work with. I helped to develop an electronic template progress note that leveraged the technology of the EHR to auto populate patients’ preventative health maintenance expectations, such last lipid panel, mammogram. Physicians were happy to see the EHR helping to improve efficiency. When they open their note, the information was there, rather than having to navigate the chart to find specific data elements and add them. Addressing and bringing attention to the needs of physicians, in terms of usability, is one of the concerns I'm hearing and I plan to bring attention, and work with our office of clinical quality and safety. 
As someone who is a clinician, you know the government doesn’t always have the best reputation. How can you help change that? 
There needs to be more communication with the process of changing things at the federal level.