Economic Stimulus: Government CIOs Have a Role in Health IT Stimulus Spending (Opinion)

Electronic health records are vital to health care's future.

by / June 29, 2009

I live in Massachusetts, where 97 percent of citizens have health-care coverage thanks to a 2006 law that mandates every resident have insurance through a unique public-private initiative. The first part of the law was to get as many people covered as fast as possible, and everybody agrees the results have been wildly successful.

That was the easy part. Now Massachusetts is working to rein in health-care costs. A key part of the state's plan calls for increased use of electronic health records (EHRs). In fact, the state passed a law last year requiring hospitals and health-care clinics to use EHRs and created a fund to help physicians put IT into their practices.

Massachusetts also began building an interoperable statewide EHR network that will let doctors, hospitals and insurance providers share information electronically. The investment will save money and lives by reducing medical errors.

States are sometimes called "laboratories of democracy," and in this case, Massachusetts is the test tube everybody is watching because no state has gone this far to insure so much of its population and require such a massive shift to EHRs.

Fortunately the rest of the public sector isn't waiting to see what happens in New England. Several key federal agencies that provide insurance to their workers and clients are adopting EHRs, as have some publicly financed health-care facilities. The economic stimulus package is about to pour $20 billion into programs similar to Massachusetts'. The infusion of funds will thrust the public sector into a much more active health-IT role.

Not surprisingly, public CIOs have a role to play even if health IT isn't part of their existing responsibilities. Public policies on IT interoperability, standards and infrastructure will expand as billions of technology funds start flowing through our country's public and private health-care system. CIOs must have a seat at the table as this happens.

To help readers get a sense of what some CIOs are already doing, writer David Raths investigated. His findings are an intriguing, first-draft look at what happens when health IT intersects with the public CIO's role.

While some public CIOs may think they have enough on their plate without the addition of health IT, one former CIO wishes he still had a plate to hold. Former Missouri CIO Dan Ross was the unfortunate victim of state politics when his boss, then-Gov. Matt Blunt, didn't seek re-election, forcing Ross to vacate his office and state government.

As Missouri CIO, he managed the state's IT programs, which he streamlined and consolidated with the help of some brilliant deputies, such as Bill Bott, while also keeping up with emerging IT trends. Ross worked with a legislature that thought cell phones were a frivolous luxury in state government, yet he recruited and hired IT workers through the virtual world Second Life.

Ross' ability to balance the somewhat conservative views of state politicians with the trendiness of technology made him unique among public CIOs. Though he wishes he could remain a public servant, Ross has launched a consulting company that advises governments and IT firms on how to work together. He's written an essay on his being a public-IT servant, with advice for current and future public CIOs. It's well worth the read.

These are just two of the many articles in an issue rich in knowledge and advice. I hope you agree. Let me know what you think.


Tod Newcombe, Editor Editor, Public CIO