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HHS's Strategic Plan for HIT: A Vision of the Future?

October 9, 2011
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Can the federal agency transform its approach into a proactive one?

Todd Park, CTO at Health and Human Services, gave a speech last week that was both rousing and intriguing. More than once, he virtually shouted “This is not your father’s HHS!” to his audience, who were attending a user group conference held by Merge Healthcare in downtown Chicago, near to where Merge is headquartered.

The point that Park, a very energetic and obviously sincere HHS executive (and its first CTO) was making, was that top officials at HHS, including himself, have been actively maneuvering the agency away from being an administrative, reactive bureaucracy, and towards being a federal agency with a proactive vision of the healthcare future, particularly with regard to IT, the Web, and connectivity.

Specifically, Park cited a three-pronged strategy coming out of HHS for leveraging IT and the Web to improve care quality and efficiency, and make the healthcare system more accountable, transparent, and responsive to healthcare consumers’ needs.

Under the heading of “information liberacion,” Park discussed “patient-centric information exchange,” as with the Blue Button program, a web-based program through which healthcare consumers will increasingly be able to download their health information and share it with providers and other trusted parties; provider-to-provider health data exchange, as embodied in the federal Direct Project; and increasing market transparency, with the aim of helping healthcare consumers to make better decisions.

Now, the reality at the moment is that both the Blue Button program and the Direct Project are in relatively early stages of development, particularly the Direct Project. But what is significant here is that Park and his colleagues recognize that HHS needs not only to manage processes, but also to lead, and to lead with a vision of the future, one that fully engages providers as partners in creating that future.

In the exclusive interview he gave me, Park expressed himself a bit more cautiously and guardedly, which is understandable. But he did confirm that HHS wants to make sure that all data reporting mandates coming out of the three mandatory healthcare reform-triggered programs under Medicare (healthcare-acquired conditions reduction, readmissions reduction, value-based payment) harmonize both with the voluntary programs (ACOs, bundled payments) and with the meaningful use requirements under the HITECH Act. And though he said he was very constrained in what he could say about the changes that might be made in the proposed rule on ACOs based on provider input, he did acknowledge the broad concerns provider leaders have around the welter of requirements from all these programs that are hitting them all at the same time these days.

Park says his vision is of a future in which HHS helps to stimulate the industry forward towards innovation, and acts as a facilitator and an incubator of innovation. The proof will definitely be in the pudding in that regard; but intentions do matter, and the vision Park has been laying out is one that I believe most in the industry would welcome, if it can be executed successfully. What will be fascinating will be to see it all play out over next few years; by then, we’ll all know whether the good intensions will have been matched by a shift in the landscape on the ground—and whether providers feel at that time that HHS is truly leading the industry, and helping a thousand flowers to bloom. Then we’ll know it’s no longer our fathers’ HHS.