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It's a Good Week for Geeks to Give Thanks

By John Reichard, CQ HealthBeat Editor

November 24, 2009 – The federal Department of Health and Human Services announced Tuesday that it's awarding $80 million in grants to develop community college programs to train technical people to help doctors and nurses use new information technology systems.

David Blumenthal, the federal official in charge of government efforts to spur health IT adoption, also announced Tuesday a new blog to engage the health IT world in how best to advance the field.

The two announcements are the latest developments in what has been a banner year for health IT.

Under economic stimulus legislation passed earlier this year, Congress provided for net additional federal spending totaling $19 billion for health IT—$2 billion in discretionary spending by HHS, and $17 billion in Medicare and Medicaid payment incentives.

HHS announced this summer that it would use $1.2 billion of the discretionary funds to create state and regional networks for the exchange of health data and to establish technical assistance centers. About half of the total would go for networks and the other half for creating the centers, which HHS likens to the agricultural extension centers Congress set up in the early 1900s to improve the efficiency of agriculture.

Of the $80 million announced Tuesday, $70 million will go directly for the community college programs and $10 million to develop educational materials to support them.

HHS said in a news release that the programs will run six months and be open to "individuals with some background in either health care or IT."

"The expansion of a highly skilled workforce developed through these programs will help health care providers and hospitals implement and maintain electronic health records and use them to strengthen delivery of care," said Blumenthal. He serves as the HHS national coordinator for health information technology.

"We estimate 70 community colleges will be involved," said Mary Jo Deering of the Office of the National Coordinator." The efforts of the community colleges will be coordinated through five regional consortia. "While many of the graduates will work in extension centers, it's certainly the intention that they would be hired by providers directly, especially over time," added Deering.

Blumenthal said in an announcing his new blog, called Health IT Buzz that he sees it in part as a listening post. "Listening is critical because there is no predicting when the most intriguing thoughts and advice will pop to the surface. It could be in a hallway conversation, in testimony before an advisory committee, or in an e-mail. It could also be on a blog."

But he said he also plans to use the blog "to discuss our ongoing work to protect patient privacy, secure information, and implement standards."

By the end of Tuesday, more than three dozen comments had been posted on the blog.

Early comments emphasized confusion about how to use health IT and the need to educate providers. Commenters also warned against hyping the technology's potential and flaws with the process for certifying new systems.

"We need to minimize the hype that has been associated with electronic health records in regard to substantial improvements in patient safety and quality," said an instructor of medical informatics. "For every positive article on the subject, there is a rebuttal or flaw in the literature."

"Many of my clients are lost, frustrated and stuck in an aggressive roll-out plan without a project plan when we arrive for the first time," blogged a consultant in the adoption of electronic health records. "I hope. . .this blog supports education to help hospital systems, physician practices and other healthcare organizations understand the complexity of what needs to be done," the consultant added. "We are in the trenches. We see what is behind the press releases and it isn't pretty."

And another comment warned about an imperfect technology certification process. Certification "does not ensure the purchaser of the software that the product does not pose any patient safety risks or that it does not have significant gaps in functionality that will cost the customer lots of money/time to figure out work-arounds," the comment said.

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