Healthcare providers last week applauded HHS' awarding of $139 million in grants to help hospitals and communities adopt information technology as the increasingly popular topic also got time in the third presidential debate.
HHS awarded the grants through its Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which will distribute the money to fuel progress on healthcare IT, "especially in the rural and small communities throughout America where the need is so great," AHRQ Director Carolyn Clancy said in a news release.
As providers and other grant recipients made plans to install electronic health records and embark on other information projects, the topic of bringing new automation to healthcare has become such a hot policy matter that President Bush brought it up in his final debate last week with the Democratic nominee, Sen. John Kerry.
"One of the reasons why there's still high cost in medicine is because (healthcare providers) don't use any information technology," Bush said in the debate. "It's the equivalent of the buggy-and-horse days, compared to other industries here in America." In April, Bush called for everyone in the country to have an electronic health record by 2014.
More than 100 of the AHRQ's grants totaling some $96 million will be distributed to hospitals, doctors and communities in 38 states to plan, implement and measure the value of healthcare IT. First-year funding for the new IT grants was set at about $50 million, with much of the funds earmarked for rural providers. In the Midwest, for instance, Novi, Mich.-based Trinity Health will use some $3.2 million in grant money to improve rural-care delivery, support safe nursing care and transform healthcare quality, officials said.
"With Iowa being one of the lowest reimbursed states in the country for Medicare, we have to continually work to drive out costs and ... improve how we deliver care," said Tamara Schwichtenberg, a nurse informaticist at Trinity's 262-bed Mercy Medical Center in Mason City. Mercy will use its share of the grant-roughly $1.5 million-to add new capabilities to its electronic health record software, including online documentation, physician order entry and clinical decision support.
Such steps will help Mercy better serve patients referred from throughout the region by enhancing communications with primary-care doctors and addressing lags in the continuity of care, Schwichtenberg said. Three years ago Trinity began carrying out what it calls Project Genesis, a systemwide implementation of common core computer systems.
The HHS grants-and the attention paid to healthcare IT by the presidential candidates-are a good start, but additional federal government assistance will be required to achieve significant progress, some hospital lobbyists said.
"More help is needed," said Kristin Welsh, an American Hospital Association lobbyist. It's important to focus on rural providers, she said, but "regardless of your size, it's just frankly expensive" to adopt new technologies.
Lexington, Ky.-based Appalachian Regional Healthcare will use a $1.5 million grant to install and train staff to use electronic health records in the emergency departments of four hospitals and three physician practices. "Rugged terrain, scattered facilities and various medical disciplines make the simple act of sharing best practices and information among ARH's facilities difficult," Jeff Brady, Appalachian Regional's chief information officer, said in a written statement prepared for Modern Healthcare.
Other grants include one to Indiana University School of Medicine, Indianapolis, which will use $5 million to build an infrastructure for a statewide health surveillance network. Separately, Colorado, Indiana, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Utah will participate in a five-year, $25 million project to develop state and regional health information networks.
"I view these awards as a building block to advance the adoption of electronic health records. ... These projects will encourage real-world laboratories for innovation," said David Brailer, HHS' national coordinator for health information technology.