HHS makes final picks for regional health IT help centers

Feds also help to fund training of 50,000 health IT workers

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has selected the final two of 62 regional extension centers (REC), which will help small, rural hospitals and private physicians with the nationwide rollout of electronic medical records (EMR) systems.

The last two centers to receive part of $677 million in grant money through the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) are the Massachusetts eHealth Collaborative, which received $5.1 million, and the CalOptima Foundation, which received $4.7 million. CalOptima covers Orange County, Calif., and the Massachusetts eHealth Collaborative covers the Bay State and New Hampshire.

RECs were created last year under the Health Information Technology Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act. The centers will provide training and technical assistance in rolling out IT in order to achieve "meaningful use" of those systems under a set of government guidelines. Each REC will have 10 to 30 workers, depending on the size of the region it is expected to assist.

Positions at RECs include a director, a program manager, a network data manager, a marketing manager, a program assistant, four to six EMR implementation specialists, three or four quality improvement employees and five outreach workers.

"Conversion from paper to electronic health records is a challenging task for any provider, and we believe that help from the RECs will make an important difference, especially in assisting doctors in smaller practices and the smaller and rural hospitals," said Dr. David Blumenthal, national coordinator for health IT.

The ONC has also distributed $144 million in grant money for training programs at more than 80 colleges nationwide to train workers to man RECs and to buttress the IT workforce with health IT experience.

The HHS estimates that 50,000 trainees will be required in addition to people already being trained in IT programs at U.S. universities, according to Dr. Charles Friedman, the ONC's chief scientific officer.

On average, each school has or will receive about $1 million to implement the curriculum, and many of the schools have banded together into five regional consortia. Students graduating from the HITECH-funded programs will receive certificates in their specialties.

While thousands of graduates of HITECH grant-funded courses will staff REC offices throughout the country, the overwhelming majority of them will find jobs in the private sector, working at hospitals, private physician practices, long-term care facilities and other clinical operations.

"The selection of these final awardees means that regional extension centers are now in place in every region of our country to help health providers make the switch from paper-based medical practice to electronic health records," Blumenthal said.

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 © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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