Health Information Technology: What Is the Federal Government's Role?

March 28, 2006 | Volume 18

Authors: David Blumenthal, M.D.



Both the executive and legislative branches of the federal government have launched or are considering new initiatives to encourage the spread of health information technology (HIT). While use of HIT will not solve every health care problem, its potential benefits are substantial, justifying federal action to realize them. In particular, federal policy may be necessary to overcome market failure in the HIT sector and to foster the creation of an information network that spans state and even national boundaries. A variety of options exists for federal action, ranging from changes in existing regulations to the provision of funds to encouraging use of HIT by small health care providers.


Health information technology (HIT) may be the hottest issue on the federal health care agenda. Seventeen bills dealing with HIT or the wider arena of patient safety, quality improvement, and pay for performance—areas of health care that may benefit from the application of technology—have been brought before the 109th Congress, where they have drawn broad, bipartisan sponsorship. President Bush and Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Leavitt also have been strong advocates of increasing the availability of HIT.

There are at least two possible explanations for this broad-based support. Promoting HIT may be a worthy idea that requires the involvement of the federal government to realize its potential. Or HIT may represent the latest policy idea to capture the imagination of lawmakers desperate to find a way out of seemingly intractable health care dilemmas.

This report explores which explanation is correct and lays out HIT policy options that federal lawmakers could pursue.


D. Blumenthal, Health Information Technology: What Is the Federal Government's Role?, The Commonwealth Fund, March 2006