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Blumenthal, Mostashari Provide One-Two Punch at ONC Gathering

November 17, 2011
by David Raths
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Both cite progress, milestones toward health IT goals

The two most recent national coordinators for health information technology led off a Nov. 17 ONC Grantee and Stakeholder Summit in Washington, D.C., with a tag-team keynote address highlighting some accomplishments and challenges that remain. Farzad Mostashari, M.D., the current head of ONC, made some news by announcing that the Regional Extension Centers had reached their goal of working with 100,000 primary care physicians and ONC surpassed its goal of 15,000 enrollees in community college workforce programs.

David Blumenthal, M.D., led off the session. The ONC head during the development of the certification and meaningful use structures, he is now the Samuel O. Thier Professor of Medicine and Professor of Health Care Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital/Partners HealthCare System and Harvard Medical School.

David Blumenthal, M.D.

He reflected back on the day he arrived in Washington in April 2009 with a daunting task of creating programs and hiring staff in a short period of time. “ONC was an agency of 35 people who had never written a regulation or run a grant program and I hadn’t either. We didn’t have a grants management staff,” he recalled. Paradoxically, he said, the ONC team took heart in just how difficult was the task that lay ahead of them. “It was clearly a moonshot,” he said, adding that the tight deadlines ONC faced “liberated us. They made it clear what we had to do and when we had to do it by.”

He said that one key goal was changing the views of provider colleagues about the role health information technology would play for them in the future. On that front, his personal experience of returning to Partners Healthcare in Boston is encouraging, Blumenthal said. He thinks ONC has succeeded in creating sense of inevitability around the conversion to electronic health records. “I think meaningful use is now a fact of life. The provider community is adjusting to it. I think there is an acceptance that we have to move the health system into an electronic age, and the status quo cannot persist. And there is a sense of urgency attached to it."

Blumenthal then introduced his successor as ONC leader, Mostashari, who gave something of an inspirational “State of the Health IT Union” speech to rally the troops. H started by talking about the marketplace for health IT products. “Five years ago, if you were in market for health IT product, many systems looked like they had DOS roots and many functionalities weren’t there. The market has been absolutely transformed over two and a half years.”

He said robust competition is unleashing an explosion of innovation, pointing to cloud-based applications and iPad apps hitting the market. “The products and choices are better, cheaper and faster than just a little while ago,” he said, adding that the market does need greater transparency so that providers will have more clarity into what they are buying ahead of time. He asked the vendor community to embrace openness and help focus their powers, tools, and relationships in the interest of helping providers get where they need to go.

In announcing that the Regional Extension Center program had reached its goal of working with 100,000 primary care physicians, Mostashari reminded attendees what an accomplishment that is. “That is one-third of all primary care providers in the country. We thought small and rural providers would be the hardest to reach. Do you know how many we are working with? Seventy percent of rural primary care physicians are working toward meaningful use. That’s amazing,” he said. “In some states it’s practically 100 percent.”

On the work force front, ONC had set a goal of 15,000 enrollees in community college programs this year. Mostashari announced that those schools already have enrolled 20,000, and 5,000 of those already have graduated 5,000. He added that everyone involved in the process is still learning as they go. “We are all learning. That’s OK. All of us are getting better day by day and month by month. We have to in order to meet this challenge.

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