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Show Me the (Grant) Money

December 22, 2008
by Mark Hagland
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While grants can help fund IT projects, CIOs should start with defining the need, then look for the money, not the other way around

Eastern maine health system's vp and cio catherine bruno (left); and jean mellett, director of planning

Eastern Maine Health System's VP and CIO Catherine Bruno (left); and Jean Mellett, director of planning

Some say Eastern Maine Health System has had luck on its side in applying for, and receiving, major healthcare IT grants from federal and other agencies. The Bangor-based health system, which encompasses seven hospitals, 729 acute-care beds, 454 long-term care beds, 272 employed physicians, and various other resources, serves the northern two-thirds of Maine. Given its largely rural service base and its comprehensive approach to services, it's not surprising that Eastern Maine has captured a large number of significant grants, among them:

  • A $500,000 grant to flagship facility Eastern Maine Medical Center from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for the development of a regional teleradiology system, including region-wide PACS.

  • A $1.4 million grant to The Aroostook Medical Center for IT development to support chronic disease management, from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

  • A $750,000 grant to the Eastern Maine system from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) for the development of a telemedicine program to improve access to specialists from rural critical-access hospital EDs and for tele-home care in chronic disease management.

Given the health system challenges facing regions like northern Maine, which are rural and have a large percentage of poor or underprivileged residents, Eastern Maine is well-positioned to garner some grants. But there's much more to it than simply scanning the grants landscape and filling out application forms, stresses Catherine Bruno, vice president and CIO of the system.

Bruno says she and her colleagues, including Jean Mellett, the health system's director of planning, say they feel fortunate in having obtained significant grants to support their IT initiatives. Above all, she says, “If you're going to participate in the grant-seeking process, it needs to align with your organization's priorities.”

That dictum applies to every one of the projects that the Eastern Maine has received grants for, Bruno and her colleagues emphasize. For example, their teleradiology program is one that Eastern Maine leaders had already set into motion before receiving the USDA grant. “We wanted to do the program regardless of external funding,” Mellett says. “And those are some of the projects we wanted to get funding for, since we had already identified them as priorities for our organization.”

Adds Bruno, “You really need to plan a grant process just as you'd plan any project upfront, and then run it like a project.” This, she says, entails planning early on for the long, involved post-implementation phase of measurement, evaluation and results reporting. Eastern Maine was named a recipient last October of the 2008 Davies Public Health Award in the organizational category, from the HIMSS Nicholas E. Davies Awards of Excellence Program.

Letting strategy drive process

Erica drazen

Erica Drazen

The vast majority of healthcare IT implementations continue to be self-funded or privately funded. But, industry experts say, the need to improve healthcare access and delivery is making a number of grants available.

What's important for CIOs to understand, Bruno says, is that it's critical to pursue grants only when the concept matches the organization's core strategic IT goals. In other words, they advise CIOs to pursue grants for initiatives they plan to pursue anyway, not to scan the grant landscape first.

Edna boone

Edna Boone

Erica Drazen, Sc.D., a partner in the Lexington, Mass.-based Emerging Practices division of CSC Corporation (Falls Church, Va.), says she agrees 100 percent with Bruno and Mellett. “Go for grants for things that you already do or want to do in the future,” she says. “If you can't find the money internally for something you want to accomplish around patients taking care of themselves, or group visits, or something else, do it. But don't just look for money for its own sake.”

Drazen cites as a negative example the relatively large number of patient care organizations whose executives have applied for health information exchange (HIE) grants in the past few years, simply because funding was available.

On the other hand, Drazen says, some CIOs may be intimidated by the prospect of competing for the small number of grants that are awarded to academic medical centers. “While it's also an issue that people think it's difficult to get this money, the application process for some of these grants, such as the Department of Agriculture grants, is not so onerous,” she says. “It's not like getting a grant from the NIH.”

Drazen's advice? “People should hook up with their local universities, which have students and lab people and access to the statisticians and so forth; and nursing schools, schools of pharmacy if you're doing something with medication — to really reach out. Because there are grad students looking for places to work.”


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