When faced with a daunting task – like adopting an EHR system – it is important to identify what resources are available to assist you in reaching your ultimate goals. With EHR adoption, a major resource to physicians and hospitals will be the Health Information Technology Extension Program.

The HITECH Act authorized the creation of a Health Information Technology Extension Program that consists of two major entities: Extension Centers and a national Health Information Technology Research Center (HITRC). Of the total federal investment in this program, about $50 million is dedicated to establishing the national HITRC, and $643 million is devoted to the Regional Centers.

What are the Extension Centers and what will they do?

The Regional Extension Centers have yet to be created. The law requires that Regional Centers be affiliated with a U.S.-based, nonprofit institution or organization that applies for and is awarded funding under the Extension Program. Regional Centers will support health care providers – mainly physicians, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners working in small group practices- with direct, individualized and on-site technical assistance in:

  • Selecting a certified EHR product that offers best value for the providers’ needs;
  • Achieving effective implementation of a certified EHR product;
  • Enhancing clinical and administrative workflows to optimally leverage an EHR system’s potential to improve quality and value of care, including patient experience as well as outcome of care; and,
  • Observing and complying with applicable legal, regulatory, professional and ethical requirements to protect the integrity, privacy and security of patients’ health information.

Regional Centers will also focus on providing intensive technical assistance for primary care clinicians serving critical access hospitals, community health centers, and in other settings that predominantly serve uninsured, underinsured, and medically underserved populations.

Where are the Extension Centers going to be located?

An estimated 70 (or more) regional centers will each serve a defined geographic area, and support at least 100,000 primary care providers.

When are Extension Centers projected to be up and running?

All Regional Centers are expected to be operating at full capacity by the end of December 2010.  By the end of December 2012, the Regional Centers should be mostly self-sustaining, with a minimal need for continued federal support in the remaining two years of the program.

How will Extension Centers be funded?

Grants under the Extension Program will be awarded on a rolling basis with an expected 20 grants awarded in the first quarter of FY2010, another 25 in the third quarter and the remaining awards in the fourth quarter of FY2010.  The initial funding includes approximately $598 million to ensure that comprehensive support is available to providers under the Extension Program beginning early in FY2010, with an additional $45 million available for years 3 and 4 of the program. The performance of each Regional Center will be evaluated every two years by a HHS-appointed panel of private experts, and continued funding is contingent upon the evaluation results. Federal support continues for four years, after which the program is expected to be self-sustaining. 

 What is the Health Information Technology Research Center (HITRC)?

The HITRC will be created to collect relevant information on effective practices. This national center will also help the regional centers collaborate with one another and stakeholders to identify and share best practices in EHR adoption, effective use, and provider support. The HITRC is intended to:

  • Provide a forum for the exchange of knowledge and experience;
  • Connect existing public and private sector initiatives, including those currently receiving federal financial support;
  • Assemble, analyze, and widely disseminate through Regional Centers and other appropriate means both evidence and experience related to the adoption, implementation, and effective use of health information technology;
  • Provide technical assistance for the establishment and evaluation of regional and local health information networks; and
  • Provide technical assistance for the development and dissemination of solutions to barriers to the exchange of electronic health information.

 For any physician or hospital administrator contemplating adopting an EMR/EHR system, there will be many government assisted resources in the near future. Switching to an EMR/EHR system is certainly a challenge, but the newly founded Extension Centers and HITRCs may help you get through process of choosing and implementing an EMR/EHR system. Stay abreast of advances in the development of the HITRC and Extension Centers: http://healthit.hhs.gov/portal/server.pt?open=512&objID=1335&mode=2&cached=true