Health IT Professionals Cast Doubt on Government Plan

Last Updated Mar 9, 2009 8:39 PM EDT

If there's one group of people who must definitely believe in the value of government investment in health information technology, it must be health IT professionals, right? Well, not exactly.

According to a survey by the Health Information Management and Systems Society (HIMSS), 48 percent of professionals don't think that the health IT provisions of the economic stimulus law will reduce health costs, even if they're implemented as the Congress meant for them to be. Thirty-four percent said the provisions will have the intended effect, and 18 percent didn't know.

The greatest barrier to proper implementation of the law, 43 percent of the survey respondents said, is inappropriate spending of the funds or lack of spending oversight. Other obstacles include lack of understanding of the technology among potential buyers (32 percent) and concerns about privacy of patient information (12 percent). Although some observers have noted that there's a shortage of trained health IT technicians, only 5 percent of the respondents thought this was a major problem.

Another surprising finding is that only 39 percent of respondents believed that the greatest impact of the health IT legislation would come from Medicare and Medicaid incentives for the demonstrated use of certified EHRs. Nearly as many professionals--34 percent--said that the incentives for adopting certified EMRs would have the biggest effect. While it's possible that some respondents simply misinterpreted the question, it appears that many professionals regard the promotion of EHRs with advanced functions as the essential piece.

A majority of respondents felt that, of the various steps healthcare organizations could take to encourage health IT adoption, the most important is "change management." This supports the view of some observers that, while cost is a key obstacle to adoption, so is the fear of the unknown and the lack of technical knowledge among physicians.

Under the health IT provisions of the law, the Office of The National Coordinator of Health Information Technology is supposed to set up regional "extension centers" to help physicians choose and implement EHRs. While the exact mechanism and the amount of funding for these centers have yet to be specified, a Senate aide told BNET that this will be an important element of the HIT campaign.

"The implementation piece is the difficult part," he pointed out. "It's where you can run into trouble, it's where you have to retool your work flow. So these extension centers are intended to help people overcome those hurdles and help them select the systems that are right for them, and help get them implemented and maximize the value they can get out of them, so they can be a real asset, not just a box on the shelf."

Dr. Blackford Middleton, chairman of the Boston-based Center For Information Technology Leadership, and 50 other experts sent the White House and Congress a letter last month to emphasize the importance of these centers. But it's unclear whether the private sector will support them or how they will be staffed, because of the aforementioned shortage of technical personnel.

  • Ken Terry

    Ken Terry, a former senior editor at Medical Economics Magazine, is the author of the book Rx For Health Care Reform.