Panel to HHS: Move it

Sociological issues slow IT deployment

The Department of Health and Human Services should hasten its timetables for health information technology projects, according to members of a high-level commission that advises the agency.

HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said the barriers to health IT deployment are sociological, not technological. It takes longer to tackle cultural, political and other people-related issues than to install new technology, he said.

"Technology is never the limiting factor," Leavitt said.

The discussion took place in Washington, D.C., Jan. 17 at a meeting of the commission, called the American Health Information Community. Craig Barrett, chairman of Intel, was among the members of the commission who pressed for faster work and more details on the initiatives that the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT oversees.

Barrett asked the national coordinator, Dr. David Brailer, how many citizens would use the personal health records promoted by a commission workgroup. Brailer replied that hundreds of thousands of people should have the records in about a year.

Barrett disagreed with the goal. "I would have to engage a number substantially larger than that," he said.

Leavitt reminded the commission that it is an advisory panel, implying that it should not be laying out firm deadlines.

Despite their concerns about the pace of the effort, American Health Information Community members were generally enthusiastic about the reports they received on the four health IT projects for which HHS has awarded contracts.

One of the contracts, for work on privacy laws and regulations that may hinder exchanges of health data, is likely to be extended.

Dr. Scott Young of HHS' Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which awarded the privacy contract to a team led by RTI International, said the agency will extend the contract in hopes of establishing a permanent repository of information about privacy issues and best privacy practices for health IT.

Commission members also questioned how the four contracts for development of health information exchange networks will result in an interoperable national network. Brailer said that although many networks may exist, they will in effect be a national network if they adhere to data exchange standards.

Barrett agreed, citing the example of automated teller machines that bank customers use worldwide. Although no single national banking network architecture exists, he said, a series of networks with common standards facilitates customers' ATM transactions.

Meanwhile, Brailer cemented his senior staff by dropping the "acting" label from the title of four senior staff members. All have substantial backgrounds in health policy issues.

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