Industry changes must support collaborative IT models

Jul 01, 2010

While politicians and legislators have elevated the visibility of the nation's healthcare challenges, regulations can't effect practical improvements in costs and quality, even during this turning point in public policy.

IN MAY, the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) for Health Information Technology awarded $220 million to 15 communities as part of its Beacon Community Cooperative Agreement Program, which aims to leverage IT to improve health.

The Colorado Beacon Consortium (CBC) received nearly $12 million in federal grant funding. The fact that it's based in Grand Junction, Colo., should come as no surprise.

An often-cited feature in The New Yorker last year highlighted Grand Junction-a community of 120,000-as a model of healthcare value. The willingness of providers, hospitals and payers to work together to lower costs and improve quality led to the creation of a communitywide record system that integrates office notes, test results and hospital data for patients in the area.

Most organizations are governed by community boards and charitable organizations, and none is "captive to" or "owned by" another, he says. There is no single CEO responsible for the production of healthcare services in the community. It is this informal structure, and an effective system of checks and balances, that make it successful.

While politicians and legislators have elevated the visibility of the nation's healthcare challenges, regulations can't effect practical improvements in costs and quality, even during this turning point in public policy.

"Healthcare reform has expanded access, but will do little on its own to control costs. Projects such as the one undertaken by the Colorado Beacon Consortium will help to inform the difficult payment and delivery-system reform decisions that Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services will have to make within the next few years," ErkenBrack says. "The importance of developing payment, contracting and regulatory structures that support integration and reward outcomes cannot be understated. That is much easier said than done, but must be our primary focus moving forward."

The drive to implement and collaborate on health IT is rooted in overall reform of the healthcare delivery system, according to Cherie Holmes-Henry, director of the Grant Resource Center at NextGen Healthcare, a Pennsylvania-based health IT provider.

"Much like broader stimulus investments being made to improve the U.S. infrastructure for the common good, we're laying down a framework to deliver measurable, higher quality, more cost-efficient care as demand grows in the future," she says.

The pilot projects are sure to produce valuable information for healthcare players all over the country, but the lessons learned in Grand Junction and the other Beacon communities will still need to be customized for application in other areas.

A portion of the Beacon grant funding is being retained by ONC to establish an oversight arm that will identify and report on health IT trends, Holmes-Henry says. A wide variety of data will be collected, analyzed and pushed back out to the states so they can use it as a resource while building their own community health strategies.

"Healthcare delivery is very localized, so it's less about replication and more about understanding overall trends, applying best practices, and implementing lessons learned in a way that is most valuable to each individual community," she says.

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