Push Is On for Health IT

At a recent panel discussion in Sacramento, the information came fast and furious — all of it on health information technology.

There was a lot to talk about. The state’s Regional Expansion Centers, the California Telehealth Network, Cal eConnect and the Beacon community in San Diego are all examples of major projects to bring electronic medical record systems to the computers of physicians across the state.

“The vast majority of the country does not have the management and financial infrastructure to implement electronic medical record systems,” David Lansky, the president and CEO of Pacific Business Group on Health, said. “And starting next year, the federal government is going to be spending substantial money to providers who can show they’re using electronic medical record technology.”

About $30 billion in substantial money, Lansky said.

“It’s a big initiative of federal policy. So why is the government spending $30 billion to make this work?” he wondered aloud, and then answered his own question. “Well, if you look at health care reform, any of it, it’s amazing how many times data infrastructure and health IT comes up. Quality measures, the entire strategy of paying for value, all of it depends on doing this right.”

And doing health information technology properly means creating a network of health providers who track patients’ care electronically.

That’s the goal of the state’s regional extension centers, according to Sajid Ahmed, director of strategy and health information technology at the L.A. Care Health Plan — known as HITEC-LA.

“[REC’s] are here to facilitate the purchase and meaningful use of EMR,” Ahmed said. “The goal is to get 100,000 providers on EMR” in the next two years, he said.

Ahmed pointed out that RECs spun off from unlikely ancestors — agricultural extension centers.

“Farmers were not using best practices,” Ahmed said, “and once they got a little guidance and started to communicate and share best practices, that helped the ag industry to become one of the biggest producers of food in the world.”

In the same way, he said, sharing health care information among physicians, pharmacists and other providers could dramatically improve health outcomes. Currently there are two REC organizations — the California Health Information Partnership and Services Organization, and HITEC-LA. “And CalOptima in Orange County will hopefully be the next,” he said.

Another big player in helping providers convert to electronic medical record systems is Cal eConnect, an organization headed by Carladenise Armbrister Edwards, who manages about $39 million in federal stimulus money to implement health IT policies.

Edwards presented Cal eConnect’s vision as three main goals — helping providers implement the technology, helping them secure financial help to do that and to educate patients and others about the wide scope and reach of electronic medical record systems — and how that technology can make their lives easier and improve their health. Things like filling prescriptions online, or asking a question of their provider by e-mail, those things go a long way toward better health, she said.

Jonah Frohlich, deputy director of health information technology at the state’s Health and Human Services agency, had an interesting point.

He asked how many people in the room used an ATM in the last month, how many used a debit card to buy groceries, or checked in electronically at the the airport before a flight. Almost everyone in the audience raised hands.

And how many people have e-mailed their health care provider or filled prescriptions online, he wanted to know — and only two hands in the audience went up.

“We live in a digital society, and in the last few years we’ve gotten very excited about electronic medical record systems,” Frohlich said. “And yet, still, only about a quarter of clinicians use them.”

With the recent approval of the state’s Health Benefit Exchange, he said, all of that will change, as a large influx of patients and federal dollars into the system will transform the health information systems around the state, he said.

“There will be a massive expansion in the use of the e-health record. It will double in about 18 months,” Frohlich said.

“That’s like a shot of adrenaline. That’s like a lot of shots of adrenaline,” he said. And an 18-month conversion, he added, “is unprecedented, for a technology that’s been around for 40 years.”

The California Health Policy Forum’s second panel discussion on health IT is scheduled Oct. 14 in Sacramento.

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