david blumenthal

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Dr. Blumenthal Went To Washington

For the last two years, Dr. David Blumenthal was the czar of Health Information Technology for the Obama administration, overseeing its monumental efforts to push the country toward electronic medical records. This is his first week back at his Harvard home. In case you missed it yesterday, CommonHealth featured him in the above brief video, on what we should all be asking of our doctors, electronically speaking. Today, we continue our debriefing, lightly edited:

Q: You’re just back from two years in Washington, DC. What will you do now?

To be absolutely frank, I’m exploring lots of different options. It’s virtually impossible to plan your next step while you’re in government, because of all the potential conflicts of interest. I’m back as a professor at Harvard and I’m sure I’ll be doing some writing, and probably some academic work, and a lot of speaking and guest-lecturing. I also have acquired something of a taste for having an impact on the real world — I spent two years trying to do that in Washington — so I’m looking for opportunities to affect health care delivery, and I’m not sure what form that will take.

I’ve become a convert to the idea that information really is power, in health care just as in everything else. The information platforms that systems work with are vital to their success, and getting those better-integrated into the day-to-day delivery of care is important for patients, doctors, nurses, hospitals — everybody. I don’t see a pathway to accomplishing everything we want to accomplish, in the commonwealth or nationally, until we have much more powerful information systems.

You can make big changes in the delivery of health care just by giving people better information. Most health care professionals go to work every day wanting to do a good job, and when they fall short, it’s often because they don’t have the information they need.

Q: Could you share a telling example of the power of information in health care?
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What’s The Least You Can Expect Electronically From Your Doctor?

For the last two years, Dr. David Blumenthal was the czar of Health Information Technology for the Obama administration, overseeing its monumental efforts to push the country toward electronic medical records. This is his first week back at his Harvard home, in a Massachusetts General Hospital office about the size of a walk-in closet, bookshelves still waiting to be filled. Rachel and I spoke with him today about his experiences in Washington, his current plans and the state of Health IT in the country and the state.

We’ll share more of that debriefing tomorrow. But first, the news you can use: in the video above and the text below, he answers the practical question: What’s the least we should expect from our doctors, at this point, in terms of using computers?

I think you should expect your doctor, nurse, and pharmacist to have your personal health information in electronic form. That means they should be entering it pretty much at the time you see them. You should be able to find your medicines, your problems, your X-ray and lab results, in their computers.

And I think increasingly you should expect your doctor to be able to communicate with you by secure email. That’s going to increasingly be a standard. Some physicians are reluctant to do that because they’re afraid they’ll be overwhelmed, but objectively, we’re at the stage we were at with the telephone 70 years ago. It’s hard to imagine a physician without phone access, and its going to be hard to imagine a physician without electronic communication.

It’s a little too soon to expect them to be in electronic communication with other doctors and hospitals. Our systems in many parts of the country are not yet capable of that. We should be capable of doing this soon in this market, in the Eastern Massachusetts market. And I think the obstacles are more a matter of will and effort and money than they are of technology.

Tomorrow: Dr. Blumenthal went to Washington. What surprised him there? How can technology help cut health care costs? And what is the current state of play in terms of federal incentives to go electronic?