Assessing HITECH Implementation and Lessons: 5 Years Later

Publisher: The Milbank Quarterly, vol. 94, issue 3
Sep 15, 2016
Authors
Marsha Gold and Catherine McLaughlin

Key Findings:

  • The expansive goals of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act required the simultaneous development of a complex and interdependent infrastructure and a wide range of relationships, generating points of vulnerability.
  • While federal legislation can be a powerful stimulus for change, its effectiveness also depends on its ability to accommodate state and local policies and private health care markets.
  • Ambitious goals require support over a long time horizon, which can be challenging to maintain. The future of health information technology (health IT) support nationally is likely to depend on the ability of the technology to satisfy its users that its functionalities address the interests policymakers and other stakeholders have in using technology to promote better care, improved outcomes, and reduced costs.

Context: The Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act set ambitious goals for developing electronic health information as one tool to reform health care delivery and improve health outcomes. With HITECH’s grant funding now mostly exhausted but statutory authority for standards remaining, this article looks back at HITECH’s experience in the first 5 years to assess its implementation, remaining challenges, and lessons learned.

Methods: This review derives from a global assessment of the HITECH Act. Earlier, we examined the logic of HITECH and identified interdependencies critical to its ultimate success. In this article, we build on that framework to review what has and has not been accomplished in building the infrastructure authorized by HITECH since it was enacted. The review incorporates quantitative and qualitative evidence of progress from the global assessment and from the evaluations funded by the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC) of individual programs authorized by the HITECH Act.

Findings: Our review of the evidence provides a mixed picture. Despite HITECH’s challenging demands, its complex programs were implemented, and important changes sought by the act are now in place. Electronic health records (EHRs) now exist in some form in most professional practices and hospitals eligible for HITECH incentive payments, more information is being shared electronically, and the focus of attention has shifted from adoption of EHRs toward more fundamental issues associated with using health information technology (health IT) to improve health care delivery and outcomes. In some areas, HITECH’s achievements to date have fallen short of the hopes of its proponents as it has proven challenging to move meaningful use beyond the initial low bar set by Meaningful Use Stage 1. EHR products vary in their ability to support more advanced functionalities, such as patient engagement and population-based care management. Many barriers to interoperability persist, limiting electronic communication across a diverse set of largely private providers and care settings.

Conclusions: Achieving the expansive goals of HITECH required the simultaneous development of a complex and interdependent infrastructure and a wide range of relationships, some better positioned to move forward than others. To date, it has proven easier to get providers to adopt EHRs, perhaps in response to financial incentives to do so, than to develop a robust infrastructure that allows the information in EHRs to be used effectively and shared not only within clinical practices but also across providers. Effective exchange of data is necessary to drive the kinds of delivery and payment reforms sought nationwide.