HHS secretary kicks off decade of health IT initiative

September 1, 2004

A 10-year plan to build a health information infrastructure has been drafted by the Department of Health and Human Services. The draft plan calls for a network to link health records nationwide. A separate action report ordered by President Bush details

A 10-year plan to build a health information infrastructure has been drafted by the Department of Health and Human Services. The draft plan calls for a network to link health records nationwide. A separate action report ordered by President Bush details other steps that can be taken in the interim to help advance health information technology.

"America needs to move much faster to adopt information technology in our healthcare system," said HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson.

The plan, prepared by the national health information technology coordinator Dr. David J. Brailer, outlines broad steps needed to establish electronic health records (EHR) for U.S. patients. These systems would not only provide information about patients but would also enable health professionals to access treatment information electronically. The report was released in Washington, DC, last month at a secretarial summit on health information technology.

"Health information technology has the potential to produce savings of 10% of our total annual spending on healthcare, even as it improves care for patients and provides new support for healthcare professionals," Thompson said.

Security and privacy of electronic medical records would be better than for paper-based records, he said. Health IT also offers greater access to and control over health records by patients themselves.

Thompson plans to appoint a special leadership panel to assess total costs and benefits of health information technology and report to him by fall. Efforts are also under way to develop private sector certification for health information technology products. HHS will begin reviewing the feasibility of a private sector consortium to plan and develop a new nationwide network for health information.

In April, the president called for EHRs to be implemented for most U.S. residents within 10 years. In an executive order, he created the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. Brailer was appointed to the new office in May.

Brailer's report identifies four major goals, with strategic action areas for each. The first is to bring information tools to the point of care, especially by investing in EHR systems in hospitals and physician offices. The second is to build an interoperable health information infrastructure, so that records follow the patient and clinicians have access to critical healthcare information. The third is to personalize care through the use of health IT that gives patients more access to their medical data and increases their involvement in health decisions. The fourth is to expand the capacity for public health monitoring and quality-of-care measurement while bringing research advances more quickly from experimental settings into medical practice.

While these broad goals are being addressed, the government can get busy with efforts for more immediate healthcare improvements. The report calls for several such actions. One is to appoint a panel of executives and leaders to assess the costs and benefits of health information technology to industry and society. This panel could deliver a report to the HHS secretary by fall 2004.

The report also suggests HHS should explore ways to work with the private sector to develop product standards for EHR functionality, interoperability, and security. A private sector ambulatory EHR certification task force is currently being formed. Product certification is especially important for smaller medical practices that need to be sure about what they're buying when they invest in EHR technology, according to the HHS.