Warren Suss | How federal IT can help corporate recovery

Until now, the challenges facing federal information technology managers have been daunting, but they have focused on federal agency and interagency requirements, while sometimes extending to information sharing among federal, state and local governments. Federal IT managers have rarely had responsibilities directly related to the success of IT in corporate America. That is about to change.

The Obama administration has initiated a $21 billion component of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to promote broad commercial use of health IT. The administration will also expand the $17 billion federal cybersecurity program to protect critical national infrastructure, including the national power grid and water systems.

As the government implements those new national initiatives and others related to the finance, energy and telecommunications sectors, senior administration officials will turn to the federal IT community for leadership and oversight. Are we prepared to handle the challenge?

Consider the barriers associated with the low rate of adoption of electronic health records. The federal government is investing $19 billion to promote broader use of EHRs in the country’s hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices. In addition, the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) will spend another $2 billion on related initiatives to promote improved information sharing between and within government and commercial health care institutions.

Dr. David Blumenthal, the new ONC leader, wrote the following in an article in the April 9 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine: “Few U.S. doctors or hospitals — perhaps 17 percent and 10 percent, respectively — have even basic EHRs, and there are significant barriers to their adoption and use: their substantial cost; the perceived lack of financial return from investing in them; the technical and logistic challenges involved in installing, maintaining and updating them; and consumers’ and physicians’ concerns about the privacy and security of electronic health information.”

The limitations of currently available systems contribute to the slow rate of EHR adoption and implementation. According to a January report from the National Academies, current health IT systems provide “little support for the cognitive tasks of clinicians or the workflow of the people who must actually use the system.… Moreover, these applications do not take advantage of human/computer interaction principles, leading to poor designs that can increase the chance of error, add to rather than reduce work, and compound the frustrations of executing required tasks.”

Despite those challenges, there is enormous potential for the use of health IT systems to improve national health care. The same report from the National Academies states: “Whereas the practices of 20th-century health care were based largely on paper, there is now a broad consensus that realizing an improved 21st-century vision of health care will require intensive use of information technology to acquire, manage, analyze, and disseminate health care information and knowledge.”

So how can federal IT managers, who already have so much on their plates, help overcome new challenges associated with nonfederal institutions, such as EHR adoption?

Here are four recommendations:

  • Transfer federal best practices. Federal institutions have plenty of experience with health IT — and with cybersecurity, finance, energy and telecommunications. Best practices and lessons learned can be transferred, with appropriate care and tailoring, to the commercial environment.
  • Use federal experts. Reach out to doctors, economists and engineers who work for the federal government to help you gain an understanding of the unique requirements of their colleagues and counterparts in the commercial marketplace.
  • Expand your current programs. Add a component to selected federal programs you’re already working on to analyze how they could be modified to fit with the new national initiatives.
  • Get more resources. Figure out what it will cost to analyze agency best practices, engage federal experts and broaden current programs to help the new national initiatives succeed. The federal IT community has a lot to contribute, but you’ll have to insist on more resources to enable a double focus on federal and commercial IT challenges.

About the Author

Warren Suss is president of Suss Consulting, a federal IT consulting firm headquartered in Jenkintown, Pa.

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