ONC Beacon Communities: A Proving Ground for Health IT and EHRs

Dr. David Blumenthal | December 2, 2009

As a physician, I’m trained to rely on proven methods and seek evidence that new approaches to care will lead to better outcomes.  The new Beacon Community Program, announced today and funded at the level of $235 million through the HITECH Act, is designed with that approach in mind.  This program aims to further strengthen advanced health information exchange capabilities established within 15 diverse communities throughout the United States.

The core goal of the Beacon Community Program is to advance specific health improvement goals through interoperable health IT and standards-based information exchange within and among providers, hospitals, and populations.  In other words, Beacon Communities are designed to be the proving ground for meaningful use of EHRs and health information exchange, where we test the proposition that health IT adoption as envisioned does actually improve health care in measurable ways, and in different types of health communities.  These communities will also show that safeguards for the privacy and security of sensitive health information are both feasible and effective.

The Beacon Community entities ultimately selected for participation in this program will be diverse and representative – large and small, urban and rural, prosperous and underserved.  But they will have two things in common:  they will all be well above-average users of health IT, and they will be fully committed to employing health information exchange within their communities.

Why invest in health communities that are already well ahead in their adoption and use of health IT, when we still have so many communities that are just getting started? Simply put, because it’s sound planning and program management.  Together with the Medicare and Medicaid program, we are investing billions of dollars in creating a nationwide interoperable private and secure health information system across all communities.  We recognize that throughout our country we have different levels of health IT adoption and varied capabilities to establish EHR systems.  Because of this diversity in adoption levels and capabilities, we want an opportunity to peer into the future, to demonstrate the benefits of health IT concretely, and to learn valuable lessons about how American communities can transform their health systems through the use of health IT.  Given the pressure to improve our health system, we want to learn these lessons quickly – in a few years if possible – and we think the best way to do that is to accelerate the progress of diverse communities that are leading the way.

At the same time, the Beacon Communities will be coordinating their efforts and sharing lessons learned with the 70 Regional Extension Centers and State Health Information Exchange program that are providing the needed assistance to health care providers just getting started in their EHR system deployments.  We also expect Beacon Communities to coordinate closely, wherever feasible, with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense’s efforts to improve the care of veterans and military personnel through health information exchange.

Demonstrating that widespread adoption and meaningful use of health IT is both feasible and can lead to improved care and cost savings in the Beacon Communities can empower and motivate other communities to get connected.  Beacon Communities will, we hope, light the path toward a higher quality, more efficient health care system for all Americans.

I encourage you to learn more about the Beacon Community Program through http://HealthIT.gov and by reading the Fact Sheet found online.

— By David Blumenthal, M.D., M.P.P. – National Coordinator for Health Information Technology