Coverage from HIMSS10

A 25,000-strong army of healthcare IT professionals has descended on Atlanta for the HIMSS10 conference and exhibition, expecting a wave of new investment. 

The buzz comes not from too much Coke – although the show is next to Coke World – but from the prospect of a gold rush, running to tens of billions of investment in health IT, pouring from the America Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) over the next few years.

Proponents of wider healthcare reform may be gloomy about President Barack Obama’s wider healthcare reform ambitions, but those more narrowly focused on healthcare IT have good reason to be cheerful.

Under ARRA, up to $36 billion of investment could be channelled into health IT over the next few years, for healthcare providers able to show they comply with ‘meaningful use’ criteria, the final version of which is due this spring.

Crucially, the ARRA investment is front-loaded, and deadlines are looming large. The final details on the criteria for funding are due for publication within the next month.

Driven by meaningful use incentives and a resurgent economy nearly three-quarters of health CIOs surveyed by HIMSS say they expect their IT budgets to increase in 2010. Two-thirds expect to increase their number of IT staff.

Healthcare providers, payors and industry partners are all now sharply focused on how they can ensure they can benefit from ARRA, to implement their EHR and related systems; make sure their systems are accredited and qualify for funding; and make full use of this limited window of opportunity.

To share in this bonanza healthcare providers must meet those meaningful use criteria, which will describe in detail how they need to be using a certified Electronic Medical Record (EMR) in three stages by 2015 to qualify for funding.

With the final details yet to be published, the criteria are throwing up a host of questions about what qualifies and what doesn’t.

Small wonder then that the educational sessions at HIMSS10 are dominated by titles like ‘how to qualify for meaningful use’, ‘preparing your bid’ and ‘what does it mean for a hospital?’

Small wonder as well that in the the HIMSS annual survey meeting, meaningful use criteria was identified as the number one priority for the next two years, with many chief information officers saying they would meet them by implementing new clinical systems, with EHRs and CPOE (computerised provider order entry) topping the list.

Just a year ago prospects looked much bleaker. Even though ARRA was signed in February 2009, the US economy in the grip of a deep recession, now with the economy growing again and the industry is on what promises to be dramatic upswing.

“A year ago , spending was down and hospitals feeling pressure, but the stabilising of the economy and the ARRA meaningful use provision has provided an incentive for making healthcare IT investments,” said Barry Chaiken from HIMSS.

Last year, financial pressures were identified as the top business issue by the survey. A year later, these had plummeted down the list, with government health reform – including ARRA – now named as the key issue.

Yet the wider future of healthcare reform still looks hugely uncertain. Just last week ago, President Obama held a bi-lateral summit between Republicans and Democrat leaders that failed to make a breakthrough.

Summing up, the President said incremental steps wouldn’t be enough. The question for the health IT industry is whether ARRA and the subsidies for EMRs create the conditions needed for a step change.

Hopefully the ARRA investment will prove a catalyst, shifting the landscape on EHRs, interoperability and enabling tools to restructure US healthcare.