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Still Early to Speculate on Blumenthal's Successor

February 7, 2011
by Jennifer Prestigiacomo, with additional reporting by David Raths
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Whoever steps into Blumenthal’s role has big shoes to fill

After the announcement last week that David Blumenthal, M.D., would be stepping down from his position of national coordinator, industry experts and national healthcare IT leaders are still unsure about who will be filling his shoes.

Sharon Canner, senior director of advocacy programs for the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME), says it was a little soon to speculate about successors, but added that she thought it was important that the person be a physician, too. “The fact that Dr. Blumenthal had been initially skeptical of EHRs but became a convert and advocate for their use really sent a strong message to physicians,” she adds.

“The most important thing to keep in mind is that Blumenthal is leaving a strong foundation behind,” says Canner. The program is in a good place now, with the request for comment out on Stage 2 of meaningful use, she says. “It is a tough job. The hard part was creating and sticking to the initial timetable,” she says. Like many others, Canner noted that the impact of Blumenthal’s departure would be mitigated somewhat by the fact that he built such a strong team. ONC’s staff grew from around 35 in March 2009 to close to 100, many of them pioneers in health IT themselves, she adds.

Russell P. Branzell, CHIME StateNet Chair and CIO and vice president at Poudre Valley Health System, in Fort Collins, Colo., was also unsure of who would be taking over for Blumenthal, but agreed that it would take a clinician to do the job right. “If you look beyond Stage 1, it really is about much more advanced clinical information flow and usage, which is really going to necessitate a physician, maybe an advanced practice nurse to really drive this community change,” he says.

Branzell also worries that the meaningful use momentum may slow down now without Blumenthal’s leadership, as he was a “charismatic person in this process.” That’s why Branzell stresses the need for a leader to be chosen quickly in this uncertain political environment. “We’re all going to be sitting on the edges of our seat at this point, hoping at this point—even interimly (sic) they push up Dr. Mostashari [Farzad Mostashari, deputy national coordinator for programs and policy, ONC] or Dr. Hunt [David Hunt, M.D., chief medical officer, ONC] fill this position fairly quickly, during a time of some political change going on, so we have a clear leader in Washington helping us with this,” he says.

Rick Schooler, vice president and CIO of the 1,800-bed Orlando Health system in Orlando, Fla., is also uncertain about the current political environment, especially in light of the recent ruling in Florida that the healthcare reform law is unconstitutional. “If healthcare reform gets repealed and they yank the HIT stimulus and they yank requirements for vendors to be certified, that’s going to hurt,” Schooler says. “But I have no reason personally to think that’s going to happen. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. Meaningful use was always a priority for us before it was called that.”

Schooler believes the next national coordinator will be from a major teaching or academic center and be tied to Washington in some way. Whoever steps into Blumenthal’s role has big shoes to fill, according to Branzell. “It’s always easier to fill someone’s shoes if they’ve been doing a bad job. I would not want to be the person filling Dr. Blumenthal’s shoes because he’s done a miraculous job,” Branzell says.” I think we all owe him a big thank you for putting his personal life on hold to deal with a really tough job.”