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Dr. Karen DeSalvo

DeSalvo, known for using IT in public health, cheered as choice for ONC

By Andis Robeznieks
Posted: December 19, 2013 - 6:15 pm ET

(Story updated at 6:25 p.m. ET.)

The health IT community enthusiastically praised the Obama administration's choice of New Orleans Health Commissioner Dr. Karen DeSalvo as the new national coordinator for health information technology.

DeSalvo starts Jan. 13 and succeeds Dr. Jacob Reider, who has been serving as acting national coordinator since Dr. Farzad Mostashari stepped down from the post in October.

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She enters the job at a crucial time. The ONC is working to balance an aggressive push to get hospitals and clinicians to adopt and meaningfully use electronic health records against intense pressure from providers for more time and flexibility to meet those requirements, part of the EHR incentive payment program created under the 2009 stimulus law. On Dec. 6, ONC and the CMS announced a one-year extension of Stage 2 of the program, which started Oct. 1 for hospitals and will start Jan. 1 for physicians and other eligible professionals. The next phase of escalating requirements was pushed back a year to 2017.

“She has deep experience with community health and likely will focus on safety, quality and efficiency policy goals empowered by healthcare IT,” Dr. John Halamka, chief information officer at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told Modern Healthcare. “Her leadership in rebuilding healthcare post Katrina is well known in the industry.”

Reider will return to his previous role as chief medical officer for “team ONC” when DeSalvo arrives. Next year, he said in a memo to staff, “will be an incredible next chapter in ONC's history and one that we should all be looking forward to.”

DeSalvo, a former professor of medicine and vice dean of community affairs and health policy for Tulane University in New Orleans, led the effort to establish a network of primary-care medical homes as part of the city's post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding process. She also served as president of the Louisiana Health Care Quality Forum.

Carla Smith, an executive vice president at HIMSS, said in a news release that DeSalvo “has a deep understanding of the value of informatics, as well as of the challenges and promise of interoperability.” That insight, Smith said, “will be essential as she transitions to lead ONC's efforts to assist U.S. clinicians and healthcare organizations as they move into Stage 2 of meaningful use.”

As health commissioner, DeSalvo increased use of health IT as “a cornerstone of the city's primary-care efforts and a key part of the city's policy development, public health initiatives and emergency preparedness,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in an e-mail to HHS' staff.

“New Orleans had made a choice to be better,” DeSalvo told Modern Healthcare in a video interview recorded last March during the Health Information and Management Systems Society conference in New Orleans.

“We made a choice to go straight to electronic health records when we could, when these new clinics were forming,” she said. “We didn't have to worry about restructuring workflow or getting rid of legacy systems. We were building from the ground.”

She added that the use of EHRs helped improve the delivery of mental health services and guided health system planning efforts.

“Without it, we would not have had the success with medical homes,” DeSalvo said in March. “We knew, very specifically, that—if we wanted good quality primary care, to be medical homes—we would need that great, rich data and the support to do quality improvement that electronic health records would give us.”

DeSalvo also talked to Modern Healthcare about how technology—such as an application that tracks where children with asthma use their inhalers—can help improve public health. “The opportunity to use data tracking that is both clinically appropriate but also helpful in public health and public policy is where I'd love to see more technology,” she said.

On Twitter, where health IT leaders have an active presence, the response to the news was fast and positive.

“Karen DeSalvo MD is an awesome choice to be National Coordinator for Health IT. Bravo!” tweeted Dr. Ruben Amarasingham, president and CEO of the Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation in Dallas.

Mostashari, now a visiting fellow at the Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform at the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank, tweeted: “I couldn't be happier with the choice of @KBDeSalvo- a public health star, she understands healthcare from the front-lines, is a true leader.”

A native of Austin, DeSalvo earned her medical degree at Tulane and also received a master's degree in clinical epidemiology from the Harvard University School of Public Health.

New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu gave high marks to DeSalvo for her tenure as the city's health commissioner, which started Jan. 18, 2011.

“Karen's passion and commitment to the health of New Orleanians is evident in the innovative, hard work she has undertaken to both overhaul the Health Department and rebuild community trust in public health,” Landrieu said in a news release.

Charlotte Parent, deputy director of the city's health department, will oversee its operations and initiatives when DeSalvo leaves.

Follow Andis Robeznieks on Twitter: @MHARobeznieks

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