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On Health IT and Patient Safety, Part 2: Agreeing on the Proper Steps

by Stephanie Zaremba, Director of Government and Regulatory Affairs

Last week on the blog, we talked about athenahealth's comments to the ONC’s Patient Safety Action and Surveillance Plan. As Dan Haley explained in that post, there was a major point-of-view running through our comments: To inform the industry on the "proper steps" (regulatory or otherwise) toward improving the safety of health IT, more and better information on patient safety and health IT is needed. Furthermore, the development of these proper steps must recognize the importance of fostering innovation and avoiding regulatory duplication as a means of protecting patients.

Now, Part 2 on this topic...
The "proper steps" have now been addressed. On February 13, the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) released its recommendations calling for a risk-based, flexible framework that both protects patient safety and promotes continued innovation in health IT. This framework was the result of a collaboration of more than 50 health systems, provider groups, patient groups, patient safety organizations, industry experts, and health IT developers, including athenahealth. We support this proposal and are committed to implementing its recommendations and next steps.

Quick summary: A large cross-section of the health care industry just came to consensus on those "proper steps" to protect patients by fostering innovation. You can find the complete BPC report here.

Patient Safety is a Shared Responsibility
One of the most important aspects of the report is its emphasis on patient safety as a shared responsibility. Our health care ecosystem is comprised of people (e.g., clinicians and patients), processes (e.g., clinical workflow), organizations (e.g., health systems), external forces (e.g., government), and, more than ever. technology. Patient safety cannot be ensured by any single part of that ecosystem alone. HIT is just one type of technology within that ecosystem, and should always be viewed as part of the broader conversation about delivering safe and quality care, not as some separate concept that exists in a vacuum.

athenahealth takes its role in promoting patient safety very seriously. That is why we actively collaborated with myriad contributors and stakeholders in the BPC’s development of these recommendations. As former Senate Majority Leader and BPC Health Project co-leader Tom Daschle said at the event releasing the recommendations, “promoting patient safety in health IT requires national focus and public and private sector leadership, collaboration and commitment.” Leadership, collaboration, and commitment are exactly what the health care industry, including vendors, just brought to the table.

Innovation is the Key to Long-Term Patient Safety
The BPC’s recommendations make clear that continued innovation is the key to improving the quality, safety and cost-effectiveness of care. The report is not about protecting patients while also fostering innovation; it is about protecting patients by fostering innovation. The two goals are not at odds with one another.

Adoption of health IT by health care providers and hospitals is only now reaching a rate where the true potential of health IT can begin to be realized. During her opening remarks at the BPC event, Dr. Carolyn Clancy, Director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, said, "technology is not the problem, it is the solution."

Of course, we want to assure the safety of patients through all stages of health IT adoption. But the real promotion of patient safety will come through further innovation, when we can infuse "big data" into the point of care and implement cutting-edge care protocols through the use of health IT, whether at rural one-doctor practices or massive academic medical centers.

To stifle innovation through heavy-handed regulation would be to stifle the continual improvement of the safety of health IT. As the BPC’s recommendations demonstrate, that is not the direction in which we should move. Patient safety is an imperative shared by every stakeholder in the health care system. Continued innovation is, and will always be, crucial to realizing the goal of continuous improvement in patient safety.

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