Health information technology advocates are hailing another call by US President George W. Bush for greater use of IT in healthcare, but understand that technology is only a small piece of an ambitious reform plan for 2006, reports US correspondent Neil Versel.

In his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, Bush linked quality, affordable healthcare to US competitiveness in the global marketplace.

“For all Americans—for all Americans, we must confront the rising cost of care, strengthen the doctor-patient relationship and help people afford the insurance coverage they need,” Bush said. “We will make wider use of electronic records and other health information technology, to help control costs and reduce dangerous medical errors.”

This marked the third consecutive year Bush mentioned IT and electronic health records in his State of the Union. It was during the 2004 State of the Union that Bush challenged the country to create EHRs for most Americans within 10 years.

The State of the Union is a speech traditionally interrupted numerous times by thunderous applause from members of Congress, and for the third year in a row, lawmakers sat on their hands after Bush delivered his EHR line. Bush got a much greater response, at least from his own Republican Party, when he talked about making private health insurance affordable and portable between jobs, and about his desire to cap monetary awards in malpractice cases.

In all, healthcare got about two paragraphs in a speech that was some 5,300 words long. But the IT community noticed.

“I think that we have yet to capture public interest and awareness for information technology in healthcare,” says Janet Marchibroda, chief executive officer of the eHealth Initiative, a public-private organisation that has been a leader in the promotion of health IT. “I do like the fact that he embedded it into a larger discussion of healthcare policy,” Marchibroda adds. “It’s really a part of a broader healthcare agenda.”

She suggests that that the greater concern is about rising healthcare costs at a time when major American corporations like General Motors and coffee king Starbucks are spending more on health insurance for their employees than they are on raw materials for their core products.

“IT is going to be part of the solution but it’s not going to be out front,” Marchibroda says. “I think we’re going to embed it into [the debate about] how healthcare gets paid for.”

Others seem to concur. “By strengthening the entire health care system, policymakers will go a long way toward making America more competitive in the new global economy and ensuring the healthcare safety net is secure for all Americans,” according to a statement from the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, a trade group for pharmacy benefit managers.

Within minutes of Bush going off the air on Tuesday, the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society issued a statement from its president and CEO, H. Steven Lieber. “Tonight, we commend President Bush for reiterating his call for improving healthcare using information technology,” Lieber said.

Lieber praised the Bush administration for its actions in this area over the past two years, including the establishment of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology and the funding of public-private collaborations to develop healthcare data standards.

By spring, the US will have a programme for certifying that EHRs for ambulatory care [delivered without a hospital stay] meet certain minimum standards. According to Marchibroda, the country is making “surprisingly good progress.”

Thomas McCausland, president of Siemens Medical Solutions USA, also chimed in. “Clearly, the groundwork is in place, but there is more that needs to be done. For example, offering exemptions to laws that prohibit hospitals from providing IT systems to local physicians would increase IT adoption, and allow hospitals to extend networks to their communities,” McCausland said in a written statement.

“The success of a national EHR requires that all healthcare providers, including smaller physician offices, be connected,” he added.