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Health IT's Future Without David Blumenthal

The outgoing national coordinator for Health IT charted a course for meaningful use of EHRs, accelerated health IT adoption, and spurred cooperation among healthcare stakeholders.

Slideshow: Who's Who In Healthcare IT
Slideshow: Who's Who In Healthcare IT

The Department of Health and Human Services Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, led a chorus of officials in the healthcare community who praised the national coordinator for Health IT, Dr. David Blumenthal, and contemplated a future without him. Their comments poured in after Blumenthal said Thursday that he will step down in the spring and return to his academic post at Harvard.

Blumenthal accelerated health IT adoption, charted a course for the meaningful use of EHRs, and launched a new phase of cooperative work with healthcare stakeholders across the nation. That’s what Sebelius said in an email to HHS senior leadership and staff at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC), Sebelius credited Blumenthal with laying the foundation upon which America's modern health IT (HIT) infrastructure will be built.

"In the last two years, our nation has finally turned the corner in our critically important journey to the use of health information technology, particularly the adoption of electronic health records," Sebelius said, noting that it was Blumenthal and his ONC team that lead this effort.

Sebelius said HHS will conduct a national search to find the right successor, and reiterated that the successful adoption and use of HIT is fundamental to virtually every other important goal in the reform of the nation's health care system.

"This important fact has long been recognized on both sides of the political aisle. And, with enactment of the Health Information Technology Economic and Clinical Health Act of 2009, followed by David's adept and powerful leadership in implementing the principle of "meaningful use" of EHRs, America is finally on the road to harnessing the full power of EHRs to help improve the quality, safety and value of health care delivery," Sebelius said.

David Muntz, chair of the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives' (CHIME) advocacy leadership team told InformationWeek that Blumenthal's departure gives him pause, but noted that the adoption of health IT is a movement that's much greater than a single individual.

"I know that it will be tough, but I'm hopeful that they will find a suitable replacement very quickly and everybody will align behind that person," said Muntz, senior VP and CIO at Baylor Health Care System in Dallas, Texas. "Blumenthal's successor has to have the same kind of credibility that he had with the CIOs and physicians in order to be successful, Muntz said. "They'll have to find somebody that has enough trust to inspire others to continue their investments in what will be a long process. The sustainability of enthusiasm is what I see as the biggest challenge for the person coming in," Muntz added.

Allscripts CEO, Glen Tullman, said Blumenthal assumed the position of national coordinator for health IT at a pivotal moment.

"David shepherded ONC through a very critical time . . . the creation, definition, and implementation of meaningful use, which really is a way to ensure that physicians actually use electronic records to improve care, but also that taxpayers get good value for their investment," Tullman said.

Tullman also said Blumenthal's successor will have the hard job of raising the standards for meaningful use and therefore for patient care, as well as shifting the focus from use of EHRs to ensuring that EHRs become information delivery systems that create insights and better outcomes.

According to Jamie Coffin, VP of Dell Healthcare and Life Sciences, Blumenthal had the benefit of being a physician who had used an EHR, which helped him relate to the physician community.

"David has been a champion of physicians in this process because, as a practicing physician, he understands that IT will only make a difference in healthcare if it makes a difference for our care providers," Coffin said.

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