Regional Extension Centers – Essential On-The-Ground Support for EHR Adoption

Thomas A. Mason | April 12, 2016

Today the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) is releasing a comprehensive evaluation of the Regional Extension Center (REC) program and we’re excited to announce that our efforts have already made a major impact.

In 2009, most doctors still used pen and paper for medical records. The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, spurred widespread adoption of electronic health records and health information exchange across hospitals and doctors’ offices. As of 2014, nearly all hospitals and approximately three-quarters of doctors reported using certified EHRs. A key element of that rapid HITECH success was its REC program.

Through the REC program, ONC funded cooperative agreements with organizations across the nation to provide on-the-ground support to thousands of physicians working in solo and small practices, Federally Qualified Health Centers, and other provider organizations with a large number of underserved patients. Many other organizations that received REC support, such as Critical Access Hospitals, were in rural settings.

This support included a wide array of services:
• Selecting and implementing an EHR system and other certified health IT products
• Achieving the EHR Incentive Programs’ meaningful use requirements
• Providing assistance with privacy and security, including security risk assessments
• Practice workflow redesign

Survey data included in the report released today indicates that 68 percent of the eligible professionals who received incentive payments under Stage 1 of the incentive program were assisted by an REC, compared to just 12 percent of those that did not work with a REC. The survey also found that many providers working with RECs received frequent and tailored help – often face to face, for as long as it was needed. Many RECs also created both structured and informal opportunities for clinicians to learn from one another, creating economies of scale to reach more providers with limited resources and spread providers’ EHR product-specific knowledge. These findings build on those of a 2012 GAO report, which concluded that Medicare providers working with RECs were more than twice as likely to receive an incentive payment.

In short, the hard work of thousands of people across the country engaging in and with RECs has contributed to a remarkable increase in the national health IT adoption rate among physicians, nurse practitioners and others. This success in digitizing the health care system is vital to creating a connected, interoperable learning health system that results in better care, smarter spending, and healthier people in all corners of the country.