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ONC Annual Meeting turns from meaningful use to larger goals

The ONC Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., will feature interoperability, population health, value-based care and other issues beyond meaningful use.

You'll find barely a mention of meaningful use on the agenda for this year's ONC Annual Meeting. That's by design.

The Feb. 2-3 summit in Washington, D.C., is devoted to "interoperable health IT for a healthy nation," as ONC's promotional materials for the event put it.

Indeed, the phrase meshes implicitly with ONC's new branding, which has moved on from meaningful use to interoperability, with the national health IT office largely kicking the still roiling terrain of meaningful use over to its fellow HHS division, CMS.

Former and current ONC chiefs together

This year's ONC Annual Meeting at the Washington Hilton hotel features, among a host of practical-minded breakout sessions, some flashy and intriguing presentations, including the first-ever live dialogue among all four former national health IT coordinators and current ONC chief Karen DeSalvo, M.D.

DeSalvo, who previously left ONC briefly to head the nation's Ebola response as an HHS acting undersecretary, is back at the ONC helm and is delivering the keynote on ONC's interoperability roadmap and the overarching Federal Health IT Strategic Plan. The former coordinators are David Brailer, M.D., Robert Kolodner, M.D., David Blumenthal, M.D., and Farzad Mostashari, M.D.

In addition, the annual meeting will include a discussion on the importance of health IT between two former political antagonists turned unlikely co-presenters: former Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, M.D., of Tennessee, and former Democratic Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Also making an appearance will be Angela Kennedy, former president and board chair of the American Health Information Management Association, who will talk about her battle against fragmentary paper records and EHRs in raising an adopted daughter with cystic fibrosis.

HIEs, care transitions and population health

Ahmed Haque, ONC's director of the office of programs and engagement and the chief organizer of the meeting, told SearchHealthIT that apart from the big names on the agenda, the program's panels will help providers, consumers and developers adopt health tech tools and use them better.

One key focus this year, for example, is on HIEs, the state-based data communication networks that allow healthcare providers to exchange patient data -- but with varying degrees of success and many technical challenges still remaining across the country.

Indeed, many providers large and small have cited data exchange in transitions of care, or referrals, as among their biggest problems in attesting to meaningful use. Problems with HIEs remain particularly pronounced in rural areas with weak broadband infrastructure, Haque noted.

"This is about making healthcare data transfers through IT actionable," Haque said.

The annual meeting, he added, is "very much action-oriented."

Haque said the last seven years -- since passage of the HITECH Act that spawned meaningful use and provided up to $30 billion in incentives for hospitals and physicians to adopt and effectively use electronic health records -- have seen the "heavy lifting" for meaningful use. Now, by and large, EHRs have been widely adopted, he said.

So now, ONC's attention is turning quite intentionally to interoperability, and within that larger goal, to population health, patient engagement and the kind of value- and outcome-based care that is becoming standard not only in accountable care organizations, but also in more conventional healthcare systems, Haque said.

"What we're looking at is not just patient-centered care, but community-level improvements," he said.

Public health and non-eligible providers

Another ONC thrust this year is advancing IT in the public health realm in terms of helping federal and local government health agencies better collect and disseminate health data. Also, on the consumer side, one panel at the annual meeting will cover improving patient access to immunization records.

And in another sign that ONC is moving into a post-meaningful-use era, Haque said the agency wants to devote energy and resources more now to improve IT capabilities for providers who were never eligible for meaningful use, such as long-term care facilities and behavioral health and post-acute care providers.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect that CMS is not the parent agency of ONC. Rather, ONC is a staff division in the Office of the Secretary of HHS. CMS is an operating division under HHS. 

Let us know what you think about the story; email Shaun Sutner, news and features writer, or contact @SSutner on Twitter.

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