National health IT chief to step down

Blumenthal to return to Harvard; HHS to begin national search for new IT chief

Less than two years after being appointed by President Barack Obama as the nation's top health IT official, Dr. David Blumenthal announced that he will step down from his post this spring.

Dr. David Blumenthal
Dr. David Blumenthal will return to his teaching position at Harvard. (Image: The Department of Health and Human Services)

As the national coordinator for health IT, Blumenthal led the healthcare industry's incremental and ongoing changeover from paper to electronic records. In a memo to his staff, Blumenthal said he will return to his teaching position at Harvard University.

"As you know, I have told Secretary [Kathleen] Sebelius that I will be returning to my academic home this spring, as was planned when I accepted the position," Blumenthal said in the memo. "While we still have important work to do together, including the assurance of a productive transition for [our office], now is the time for me to express my deep gratitude to all of my ... colleagues, and my admiration for all you have accomplished."

Blumenthal's boss, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, said in a memo to her staff that Blumenthal "created momentum" in pushing health IT forward.

"In the last two years, our nation has finally turned the corner in our critically important journey to the use of health information technology (HIT), particularly the adoption of electronic health records (EHRs)," the memo reads. "Under the leadership of David Blumenthal and his entire team at [the Office of the National Coordinator (ONC)], we have made significant strides in the implementation of EHRs."

According to Sebelius, Blumenthal had planned to return to Harvard before two years had passed, which is a requirement at the school for professors who want to maintain tenure. But in announcements at the time of his appointment, there was no mention by Blumenthal that he planned to serve only two years.

Obama appointed Blumenthal, 62, as the nation's health IT coordinator in March 2009. Sebelius said her office will now conduct a national search to find "the right successor."

Blumenthal led efforts under the $27 billion Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act to help the nation's healthcare system change from paper-based records to electronic records. At the root of that effort is a program that would provide up to $64,000 per physician in incentive payments for those who meet standards that demonstrate that they are engaged in "meaningful use" of EHR systems.

There is still some controversy over whether EHRs would streamline healthcare and provide significant benefits to providers and patients, or whether adding more computerization would simply bog down established processes.

Recent surveys of physicians have shown that adoption of EHRs has been slow, with many respondents expressing concern that new data entry systems will complicate the workflow of physicians and their staffs.

"For years America's health policy leaders have understood that information technology offered the opportunity for transformational improvement of the nation's health care system and the health of individual Americans. Yet the obstacles are formidable: our fractured health care system, our dysfunctional payment methods, the lack of an infrastructure for exchanging health information, and more," Blumenthal said in his memo. "But I believe the key factor for success has been, and will continue to be, the concept of 'meaningful use.'"

Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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