The information technology contracts recently awarded by HHS open the door to electronic health records gaining a stamp of approval as soon as next summer.
HHS awarded the three contracts as part of the Bush administration's efforts to accelerate the use of electronic health records.
The contracts, totaling $17.5 million in the first year, were awarded to private, not-for-profit groups charged with creating processes to "harmonize" multiple sets of EHR standards, certifying products that meet those standards and ensuring the privacy of individuals whose medical information is contained in EHRs.
The Chicago-based Certification Commission for Healthcare Information Technology, or CCHIT, was awarded a $2.7 million contract to develop criteria for evaluating the more than 200 EHR products on the market.
Pending congressional allocation, the contract will total $7.5 million over three years with an optional fourth year for $1.2 million.
Also awarded was a $3.3 million, three-year contract with the Washington-based American National Standards Institute, which will convene a Health Information Technology Standards Panel to develop a process for achieving an accepted and useful set of standards to ensure interoperability.
The third contract, an 18-month $11.5 million deal, was awarded to the Durham, N.C.-based Research Triangle Institute International for developing privacy solutions.
At a news conference, CCHIT Chairman Mark Leavitt described his organization's task with the certification contract as evaluating EHRs on how well they work to improve the quality, safety and efficiency of healthcare while protecting privacy of medical information.
CCHIT was formed last year by three leading healthcare information technology organizations -- including the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society for which Leavitt formerly served as medical director -- and was already well on its way toward developing a certification process before the federal government announced its intentions.
The HHS contract calls for CCHIT to submit recommendations for ambulatory EHR certification criteria in December, and to develop an evaluation process for ambulatory health records in January 2006.
It appears, however, that the organization is well ahead of that schedule, as it is already gearing up for pilot-testing of its previously chosen criteria in December, with actual product certification set to begin in March 2006.
So, by summer 2006, "There could be certified products on the market," Leavitt says.
In an interview, Leavitt emphasizes that "the contract with HHS does not imply the government has certified the products we certify."
"It does add weight to our work because we were selected for the contract," he says. "But you can't make the link today that our certification is some kind of official government certification."
National Coordinator for Health Information Technology David Brailer, M.D., told reporters Oct. 6 that the contracts were procuring a process and not a result, and explained how the two biggest barriers to widespread adoption of EHRs remain financial risk and technical know-how.
Physicians need to feel comfortable that what they spend their money on will indeed help their practice and these contracts speak to this concern, he says.
"This is not a trivial exercise for trivial benefit," Brailer says.
It is noted that multiple sets of standards already exist for EHRs, but there are variations and gaps that may hinder the ability of one physician's electronic system to offer a "seamless and secure" exchange of patient information.
A fourth contract yet-to-be awarded will develop a national health information network architecture.
That contract award will be announced later this year.