While the debate over "meaningful use" of electronic health records rages on, it has been easy to forget the other half of the requirement for getting government health IT subsidies: Physicians and hospitals must use "qualified" EHRs.
Since the passage of the HITECH Act, part of last spring's stimulus package, there has been speculation that a qualified EHR would have to be certified by the Certification Commission for Health Information Technology (CCHIT), which so far has been the only game in town. But the Health IT Advisory Committee, which advises the Department of Health and Human Services on information technology matters, has decided that there should be multiple certification bodies. All of them would have to certify EHRs under criteria developed by HHS.
According to the work group that made the recommendations approved by the whole committee, CCHIT's criteria for certification are too detailed and the organization is too close to the industry to be the only certifying entity. Other observers have pointed out that CCHIT is very close to the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), a trade association for health IT professionals that includes many software vendors among its members. In addition, Mark Leavitt, MD, chair of CCHIT, used to be a HIMSS executive and, before that, led an EHR company. However, there is no evidence that CCHIT's ties with HIMSS have influenced its approach to certification, which has been implemented by workgroups that include a wide range of industry professionals.
In any case, CCHIT plans to certify EHRs under the criteria that will be established by HHS. Meanwhile, the advisory committee has asked CCHIT to submit a proposal for developing a "Preliminary HHS Certification" process that would allow it to provide preliminary certification to EHR vendors so that providers can begin purchasing qualified products, perhaps as early as October. In addition, the committee approved a plan to grandfather in vendors that have 2008 CCHIT certification, with the proviso that they upgrade their products later.
In a signifier of what this debate is really about, the committee has approved the certification of "open-source" EHRs, which contain non-proprietary code that is available to anyone who wants to use it. The best-known example in the healthcare arena is the VA system's Vista EHR, which has been available to software developers for a number of years. In addition, the comment about CCHIT's criteria being too detailed suggests that the committee wants to use looser criteria under which less advanced (and less expensive) EHRs could qualify for government aid.
I applaud this decision on a couple of grounds: First, continuing to tighten criteria for "qualified" EHRs would help a dozen or so vendors consolidate their hold on the market as providers sought EHRs that could garner government aid. Second, physicians don't need all of the bells and whistles in current EHRs to improve health care. Relaxing the criteria in certain respects would help the development of nontraditional community EHRs, including those linked to disease registries, that might serve the purpose better. But as HHS develops its criteria, it should bear in mind that the EHRs that are qualified for government subsidies must also help doctors demonstrate meaningful use.