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Can Communities Teach Each Other Health IT Adoption?

December 2, 2009
by David Raths
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It’s easy to see how one hospital or health system could be a model to others in terms of health IT deployment. But can a whole geographic community’s success be translated or copied to another?

That appears to be the hope of people at the Department of Health and Human Services. On Dec. 2, Dr. David Blumenthal, HHS’ National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, announced $235 million in funding for the Beacon Community Cooperative Agreement Program. Fifteen nonprofit organizations or government entities representing geographic health care communities, both urban and rural, are to receive funding to accelerate their already high level of performance in demonstrating how meaningful use of health IT can benefit population health. The idea is that they, in turn, will serve as examples and teachers for other communities trying to reach the same level of EHR adoption, performance measurement and data sharing.

Interestingly, there was initially some confusion amongst reporters on the Dec. 2 HHS conference call about what types of organizations Blumenthal was talking about. In his introductory remarks, he made reference to organizations that have been models in health IT adoption and cited examples such as Geisinger Health System and Kaiser Permanente. This led some listeners to believe this was the type of organization available for grant funding. One of the first questions was, aren’t you going to be accused of giving money to already successful organizations when it’s the struggling ones that are more in need of funding?

At that point, Blumenthal had to clarify that his earlier comment was to point out that we have these models in individual health systems, but we haven’t yet identified community-wide role models, so this is an attempt to do that. He added that all grant recipients would be nonprofit and many would focus on underserved and rural populations.

Someone on the conference call asked whether the Quality Health Network in Grand Junction, Colo., would be a good example of what he was talking about. (Quality Health Network is a collaboration between the Mesa County Independent Physicians Association, Rocky Mountain Health Plans and St. Mary’s and Community hospitals.) I remember interviewing Dr. Greg Reicks, president of the 204-member Mesa County Physicians IPA, two years ago about their efforts, and it does seem like the type of organization that would fit the description. Perhaps so does the Taconic IPA in Fishkill, N.Y., which has been instrumental in the development of the Taconic Health Information Network and Community (THINC) RHIO in the Hudson River Valley.

Another example that comes to mind is the Portland-based Oregon Community Health Information Network (OCHIN). OCHIN, which provides health information technology support to community health centers, is starting to capture aggregate healthcare data on low-income and uninsured populations. Their work could have great public health benefits down the road.

But is the work these organizations have done easily replicable? When you interview their executives, you get the impression their success is the result of years of building social capital with other local stakeholders. That’s an important thing to realize, but it cannot be replicated easily.

I’d be interested to hear other people’s impressions of this Beacon concept, as well as other ideas of organizations that might fit the description.

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