UPDATED: 6:30 p.m.
Dr. David Blumenthal will step down this spring as national coordinator for health information technology to return to Harvard University, where he served as a healthcare researcher, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced.
Blumenthal, 62, was named by President Barack Obama in March 2009 to serve as the ONC's leader. Blumenthal succeeded Dr. Robert Kolodner to become the third head of the ONC. Dr. David Brailer was the first ONC director when the position was created in 2004 by order of then-President George W. Bush.
“As you know, I have told Secretary Sebelius that I will be returning to my academic home this spring, as was planned when I accepted the position,” Blumenthal said in a memo to the ONC staff. “While we still have important work to do together, including the assurance of a productive transition for ONC, now is the time for me to express my deep gratitude to all of my ONC colleagues, and my admiration for all you have accomplished.”
Sebelius, in a memo, said Blumenthal will leave having “created real momentum for (health information technology) adoption.” The Harvard researcher “charted a course for the meaningful use of EHRs and launched a new phase of cooperative and supportive work with the healthcare community, states and cities across the nation," Sebelius said.
Before joining the Obama administration, Blumenthal, an internist, was a director of the Institute for Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital/Partners HealthCare System in Boston. He was a professor of medicine and healthcare policy at Harvard Medical School and was director of the Harvard University Interfaculty Program for Health Systems Improvement.
Late Thursday, Blumenthal's fellow physicians in the medical-informatics community praised his accomplishments and expressed optimism that his legacy will continue.
Dr. William Bria III is the chief medical information officer at the Shriners Hospitals for Children, Tampa, and president of the Association of Medical Directors of Information Systems, a professional association for physician informaticists.
"The idea that David Blumenthal, as a leader, as a policy expert, which was his background, has made a major contribution is a matter of record," Bria said in a phone interview.
"The fun is just beginning," he said. "I think it is a crucial time—the notion of stability and resolve to see the entire program through to 2016 and beyond is imperative."
A handful of recent developments in the federal health IT world—a report
from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology that was somewhat critical of the ONC's sense of direction with the federal IT program, the introduction in the U.S. House of federal legislation that could strip unexpended funds
from the electronic health-record system incentive program and some general grumblings about meaningful-use
requirements—represent a "nibbling at the edges" of the government's health IT initiative, Bria said. In light of those, Bria said he would have preferred "a completely stable platform of individuals and leadership at least going into the rest of this year."
Still, he added: "Do I think the things are so fragile that his leaving will have a major impact? I don't think so. He's built enough of a team and enough of a legacy, there has been enough support, including from our organization, to get this done. I remain very happy and hopeful. I think America is on a threshold of a major transformation of improving its healthcare environment."
Over the past two years, Dr. Paul Tang worked with Blumenthal as closely as anyone not on the ONC's staff. Tang served as vice chairman of the Health IT Policy Committee under Blumenthal's chairmanship. The advisory panel was established under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to guide the ONC on health IT policy matters. When not serving as a federal adviser, Tang works as vice president and chief medical information officer at the Palo Alto (Calif.) Medical Foundation.
Tang, in an e-mail statement, described Blumenthal as "a superb national coordinator who accomplished an enormous amount in his two-year tenure." Blumenthal's "wise, even-handed guidance," he added, was essential in promoting a healthcare IT transformation for the country.
Dr. Peter Basch, medical director for electronic health records and health IT policy at MedStar Health, Columbia, Md., and a member of three Health IT Policy Committee work groups, said Blumenthal's prior use of electronic health-record systems in his medical practice served him well in his ONC job.
"Really, from the beginning—he was chosen as a non-IT person leading the IT strategy—I felt comfortable," Basch said. "Someone who has practiced medicine using IT was the right person. David has focused on making it real and meaningful and was not distracted by what I'd call the flashing lights."
The U.S. is "heading in the right path" in health IT in no small part thanks to Blumenthal's leadership, he said. "Certainly, whoever is following David will have large shoes to fill, but will find it easier to keep on the right path," Basch said. "There is a tremendous team now in place at ONC. Granted, there is a lot going on, but there are a lot of people with the same mission to keep that going."