A healthcare information technology expert with a congressional watchdog agency recited to members of Congress this week one of the verities of process quality control: You can't improve what you can't measure.
David Powter, director of information technology management issues for the Government Accountability Office told the House subcommittee on technology, information policy, intergovernmental relations and the census that progress is being made in healthcare IT, but a lot of work remains--and one basic step will be to set measurable goals.
Powter testified Wednesday that some key recommendations the GAO made in a report last year to Congress about healthcare IT have been adopted. In researching for the 2003 report, Powter said the GAO found 72 healthcare IT initiatives under way or being planned at various government agencies in the field of public health alone. As a result, the GAO recommended that the government should come up with an overarching national IT strategy, set priorities and hire a coordinator to guide the government- and private-sector efforts.
Since then, President Bush has created the position of national IT coordinator and appointed David Brailer, M.D., to the job. Brailer is scheduled to issue a progress report on a national IT plan this coming Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
"Although it's encouraging that the coordinator plans to present this strategic plan next week, as health IT initiatives are pursued it will be essential to have continued leadership, clear direction, measurable goals and mechanisms to monitor progress," Powter testified.
The subcommittee of the Committee on Government Reform oversees $60 billion in IT spending throughout the federal government, Powter said in a telephone interview today. He said the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.) and other members "get it" when it comes to the importance of healthcare IT.
"It is the IT committee in Congress," Powter said. "They understand the benefits of IT." But for IT legislation to move out of the committee "some partnering with the authorization and appropriations committees is going to be key."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is now devoting much of his time to boosting healthcare IT, also testified before the subcommittee last week, Powter said. Gingrich called for a basic, portable patient healthcare record as an initial building block to IT expansion.
Powter said the hearing concluded with a spirited question-and-answer session led by Putnam with panelists speculating on what should be first steps in Brailer's plan
His recommendation, which Powter says Brailer also has likely concluded, is to "start small and build up" with local and regional successes.
"It's just such a huge undertaking, you're not going to do this with one big bang," Powter said.