Remarks on the White House Rural Council’s Health IT Initiative

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U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
Health Resources and Services Administration
HRSA Press Office: (301) 443-3376


by HRSA Administrator Mary K. Wakefield, PhD, RN

February 7, 2012
Conference Call

Thank you, Farzad (Mostashari, National Coordinator for Health Information Technology), and thanks to each of you from across the country who have joined us for today’s call.

As Farzad mentioned, I co-lead the HHS Rural Health Information Technology Task Force with him. Secretary Sebelius created the task force to make sure that rural communities had a voice at the health IT table. Through its work, we want to ensure that the challenges unique to health care in rural America are carefully considered as we strengthen the HIT infrastructure.

We are working very hard within the Department and across government to help bridge the technology gap and to help rural providers position themselves to take advantage of incentives available for Electronic Health Records and HIT.

The implementation of HIT is absolutely necessary. Perhaps the most extreme example of its benefit was evident in the aftermath of the tornado that hit Joplin, Missouri, in May of last year.  When St. John’s Regional Medical Center was destroyed by the tornado, its medical records were kept intact because they were stored electronically 75 miles away.

But as important as it is to be able to preserve health care records in the face of national disasters, we also know that HIT is increasingly valued as playing a critical role in enhancing patient safety, reducing medical errors, improving care coordination, and giving real-time access to the best clinical practices and evidence-based health care.

For example, several studies show that hospitals experience reductions in medical errors after they adopt HIT.  And a number of studies have assessed the relationship between HIT and clinical quality.

That issue – improving care quality – is a major focus of the Affordable Care Act.

The ACA encourages the development of new models of delivering care through Accountable Care Organizations and Patient-Centered Medical Homes, both of which require clinicians to share health care information in real time to allow them to better coordinate care and to make more informed medical decisions. This can most effectively be accomplished by implementing and using HIT.

As an incentive to boost quality outcomes, the law allows ACOs that improve the health of their patients and lower overall health care costs to retain some of the savings they create.

The ACA also supports the Partnership for Patients, an effort led by HHS that has enlisted more than 7,000 hospitals, health plans, health professionals, employers and consumer groups to focus on strategies that will improve the quality, safety and affordability of health care for all Americans.  And HIT has a role to play in these efforts.

Advances in HIT over the past decade have made seamless and just-in-time coordination of care possible in ways that were hard to imagine just a few years ago.  So as we advance affordable, accessible health care services, we want to make sure that rural providers are part of new efforts supported by the ACA to improve the quality of that care.

For information on many related provisions in the Affordable Care Act, go online at the website.

From HRSA’s vantage point, our vision for Health IT is quite simple: we want to leverage the power of this technology to improve care quality and patient outcomes and to eliminate health disparities for people who are geographically isolated or who are medically or economically vulnerable.

Our Office of Rural Health Policy is the Department’s lead in rural-specific grant programs, and the HHS representative on the White House Rural Council.  ORHP’s goal on this issue is to help us avoid a digital divide in rural safety-net programs by promoting the adoption and meaningful use of HIT, and to facilitate provider participation in payment reform and meaningful use incentive payments.

ORHP is a key source of information and expertise for all of you in implementing HIT.  And I also recommend that you contact HRSA’s regional offices for help.  These regional offices are HRSA’s connection that’s close to all parts of the nation, and I strongly urge you to get to know the staff there and use them as a valuable local resource. You can visit our website at  and get details on the HRSA regional office closest to you.

And to access a wealth of information on implementing various elements of HIT, I want to mention another resource, and that is HRSA’s main HIT website at: There you’ll find archived Webinars, information sheets and resources on how to use HIT to work with safety net patients; how to generate and utilize Quality Data Reports; and how to overcome HIT workforce challenges.

The site also has “Health IT Toolboxes” that we developed with the Agency for Health Research and Quality that are designed to help grantees in all stages of considering, planning, executing, and evaluating implementation of HIT.  And just last month we launched a dedicated rural HIT and meaningful use toolbox with information to help rural providers find resources for HIT, Electronic Health Records, meaningful use and related topics.

Remember: all these HIT resources, and more, are available at

I’ve been talking about making sure that rural doesn’t get left behind, but, as is always the case, rural very often leads the way, too.

While there are many excellent examples of rural trailblazers in HIT, I want to mention just one. I don’t know if there is anyone listening right now from Darlington, Wisconsin, but Memorial Hospital of Lafayette County is a county-owned hospital that serves one of the poorest areas in the state and has very limited funds for HIT.

This critical access hospital was among the very first in the nation to begin adopting and sharing Electronic Health Records with three other Critical Access Hospitals – way back in 2007 – funded in part by a HRSA HIT grant.  Memorial Hospital went from no electronic capacity to a relatively advanced EHR system for pharmacy, lab, patient care documentation, physician orders, and medical records.

And, no surprise, we want every rural hospital and every rural health care provider to be able to do what Memorial Hospital of Lafayette County was able to do.

To promote this kind of activity, last fall HRSA awarded almost $12 million to help 40 rural providers adopt HIT and EHR by purchasing equipment, installing broadband networks and training staff.  These Rural Health Information Technology Grants will help eligible participating providers in rural health networks qualify for Medicare and Medicaid EHR incentive payments.

When looking for funding opportunities or support from HRSA, I encourage you to look at the broad range of work that HRSA does and all the Bureaus and Offices that are leading that work.

For example, you are all familiar with the Beacon Communities, which receive funds through the Office of the National Coordinator for HIT activities.  In September, thanks to ACA funds, HRSA awarded $8.5 million in supplemental funds to 85 health centers in 15 of the 17 Beacon Communities across the country, some of which serve rural areas.

The supplemental funding enables health centers to participate in community-wide health care improvement initiatives that contain a strong HIT component.  The recipient health centers are expected to use the supplemental funds to collaborate with Beacon Community Program grantees and improve their individual health center’s capacity to share data and information within the Beacon Community.

In our Bureau of Primary Health Care, HRSA expects to announce the availability later this spring of about $20 million for 20 to 25 awards for Health Center Controlled Networks.  This program supports the adoption of HIT and the meaningful use of EHRs to improve quality in health centers.

Another HRSA bureau involved in HIT is the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, which funds an electronic health information exchange system for newborn screenings and follow-ups in four states (Colorado, New York, Utah, and Indiana). The projects ensure that infants and children are screened for rare disorders and that clinicians have the information they need to provide appropriate care.

This project is also an excellent example of the ways that collaboration among partners can bring success.  These electronic systems evolved through partnerships with patients, clinicians, laboratory staff, public health agencies, researchers, and community support services.

Before I close, I want to make you aware of some upcoming events aimed at linking rural health care providers with federal resources for HIT.  The USDA state directors will be in Washington, D.C., for their annual conference during the week of February 20.  And in March, federal and state partners will attend a meeting of Regional Critical Access Hospitals in Spokane, Washington. One other regional meeting is in the works.

In closing, I want to acknowledge that we believe strongly that HIT is not a nicety, it’s a necessity. And an important part of the expectation will come from the next generation of clinicians who grew up on the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, the iPad, the iPhone and other technology. And their expectation is, of course, to have interoperable, private, secure, and modern electronic health information systems.

Even more importantly, to improve patient outcomes these systems must be built out across the country over the coming years.  Health information technology is a vital tool in reaching and treating the vulnerable populations we serve, and the partnerships we can forge together will strengthen efforts to deliver comprehensive, high-quality primary health care.

I hope you will reach out to us in your efforts to help the populations we all serve. We are here to help and to partner with you in your work.

Thank you.

Date Last Reviewed:  April 2017