Electronic Health Records: How to Spend the Money Wisely

BY STEVE LOHR

So it looks as if the nation’s taxpayers are going to spend about $20 billion to accelerate the use of computerized medical records. In his press conference Monday night, President Obama went out of his way to explain why that money belonged in the economic stimulus package. It is, he said, a job-creating investment in both the present and the future that will improve the quality of care and save lives.

But in a letter delivered Tuesday to the White House and Congressional offices, 50 of the nation’s leading experts in electronic health records — most of them physicians themselves — warned that “an historic opportunity to achieve quality and efficiency gains through health information technology will be lost,” unless the government channels the spending carefully.

Just throwing money at doctors, they say, is not going to work. “The challenge is going to be all about implementation,” said Dr. Blackford Middleton, chairman of the Center for Information Technology Leadership, a research arm of Partners Healthcare, a big nonprofit medical group in Boston that includes Massachusetts General Hospital. “Where is the money going to flow and what is the mechanism of implementation?”

Dr. Middleton and others who signed the document say the answer lies in replicating a few standout community projects that have had success in offering installation help, technical support, buying power and training to small physician practices. The small group practices will be where the Obama administration’s push succeeds or fails because 75 percent of the nation’s physicians work in offices of 10 doctors or fewer.

The health information technology provisions in the stimulus bill are a step toward the goal of nearly universal electronic health record adoption over the next 10 years (compared with 17 percent today). The central feature of the plan is incentive payments for using electronic records for improvements in health quality, efficiency, prevention and safety.

But the experts’ letter focuses on the importance of properly financing and assigning a significant role to the “Regional Health IT Extension Centers,” which are called for in the bill. The experts see these centers as a critical bridge to success for a nationwide rollout of electronic health records. In their document, they point to two examples of excellence, the Massachusetts eHealth Collaborative and New York City’s Primary Care Information Project.

The New York project began two years ago with $27 million in funding and a commitment to help small practices, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods, adopt and use electronic health records. It has worked with software suppliers to tailor a health record suited for its purposes. The project’s leaders insisted that the patient information in the electronic records could be shared across a community health network, linking doctors offices, clinics and hospitals. The project provides centralized technical support, education and know-how for doctors and others. It began rolling out its records about a year ago, and they are now used in two hospital outpatient clinics, 10 community health centers, 150 small group physician practices and one women’s jail, serving a total of one million patients.

I asked Dr. Farzad Mostashari, the assistant commissioner in the New York City Department of Health in charge of the primary care information project, what he’s learned. “There is no way that small practices, especially in underserved areas, can effectively implement electronic health records on their own,” he said. “To get a public benefit, and widespread adoption, just giving cash to doctors is not going to work.”