President Obama signed the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act into law on February 17th, 2009. Part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the HITECH act sets aside federal money to reimburse physicians who purchase and implement an Electronic Health Record (EHR). In order to participate in the program, physicians themselves must qualify; they must adopt a certified EHR, and implement it in their practice according to the “meaningful use” guidelines.

Meaningful use is the key focus, because it will determine how physicians must use their systems and what features EHR vendors will have to provide to obtain certification. The problem lies in the fact that the “meaningful use” requirements have not yet been formally defined. The current proposal will require computerized order entry, drug interaction checking, maintaining an updated problem list, and generating and transmitting permissible prescriptions. However, many fear these requirements will be too complex for EHR vendors and physicians to implement and use before 2011.

Dr. David Blumenthal, National Health IT Coordinator, delivered a speech last Monday where he stated that “the meaningful use framework will be about the goals of care, not the technology.” This is an important statement, because physicians should recognize the point of adopting an EHR is not to spend money on new gadgets, but to use technology as an enabler to provide better healthcare. The meaningful use guidelines will help ensure physicians are using their EHR systems for things like drug interaction checking, and order management, two areas where EHRs have the most to offer.

Blumenthal and the Obama administration hope that EHRs will be “symbolic of professionalism in medicine” in the near future. Blumenthal pointed out that “information is really the lifeblood of medicine,” and that “health information technology is its circulatory system.” While many agree EHRs are important, reimbursement funding under the HITECH Act won’t last forever. Blumenthal stressed that “the idea that government should subsidize health IT will be as foreign an idea that the government should buy stethoscopes or exam tables for doctors.”

Currently, qualified professionals can expect about $66,000 in reimbursements if at least 30% of their patients are Medicaid. Under Medicare, physicians can receive up to $44,000, depending on their claims. The reimbursements start in 2011 and go through 2014. Physicians who wish to take advantage of the $18,000 offered in 2011 need to get started as soon as possible. Conversely, those who fail to adopt a qualified EHR system will see their reimbursements decreased starting in 2016.

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