Health IT funding to create 50,000 jobs

Sixty regional IT help centers will help health care facilities implement electronic medical records

BOSTON -- Federal dollars being pumped into grant programs to spur students to enter IT careers in the health care industry should help to create between 45,000 and 50,000 jobs over the next five years, a top federal health official said on Thursday.

Speaking at the Health Information Technology (HIT) Conference here, Dr. David Blumenthal, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, said a portion of $2 billion in discretionary spending under Office of the National Coordinator (ONC) is being targeted at education and training for electronic health record implementation.

A large part of the training is for people to staff 60 regional extension centers, which are public, private partnerships that will assist rural hospitals and physician practices with 10 or fewer doctors in rolling out electronic medical records (EMRs) and supporting technology.

"There's a shortage of workers who can staff these regional extension centers and provide the kind of support physicians and hospitals need to become meaningful users" [of EMRs], Blumenthal said.

Without specifying an amount, Blumenthal said the ONC has already handed out funding to 70 community colleges or other universities to create programs for workforce training for health information technology.

The HIT conference, hosted by the Massachusetts Health Data Consortium, focused not only how to create jobs in health information technology, but how that technology can reduce health costs while improving quality of care.

The ONC has released a 556-page draft rule that contains specifications and certification criteria for EMRs. Those rules, now available for public comment, set a four-year timeline beginning in 2011 for implementing the systems; they also spell out best practices.

A final version of the government's Notice of Proposed Rule Making helps define what type of technology should be used and spells out how $36 billion in incentives from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 should be paid out. A physician in private practice can receive up to $44,000 for rolling out EMRs and showing "meaningful use" of that technology.

Hospitals could potentially received millions of dollars in reimbursement.

Physicians and hospitals that don't roll out the EMR technology and prove that they are making "meaningful use" of it by 2015 face penalties in the form of reduced Medicare reimbursements.

Blumenthal also said an advisory committee he formed to investigate reports from members of Congress and the press that EHRs had cause some "adverse events and patient injuries" reported back to him about three weeks ago. He said the committee recommended collecting more information and that the ONC further study safety problems associated with EHRs, "and make sure we proceed thoughtfully and carefully."

Blumenthal said nothing the committee found had given it any pause as to the trust that the government, including Congress, had in the ONC's policies surrounding the rollout of EHRs.

"There was no question that the introduction of electronic health systems improve patient safety. The issue was how do we introduce those systems in ways that are as safe as possible," Blumenthal said.

The ranking member of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee has asked 31 hospitals and health-care systems to provide feedback on problems with computer systems associated with the government's efforts to incent the rollout of EHRs.

The government has uncovered prescription errors related to EHR systems that have been rolled out in private-sector hospitals. Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), sent a letter in January to some of the nation's largest health care facilities asking for any information on "issues or concerns that have been raised by your health care providers" over the past two years.

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