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An evaluation of the regional extension center program

A report on regional extension centers, mostly associated with meaningful use and EHRs, found the centers helped providers use some EHR features.

Since the enactment of HITECH Act, many physicians were aware of the numerous technological challenges that would be heading their way. They knew they'd need experts in the healthcare field who could assist them with some of the complex technical challenges needed to satisfy incentive payment requirements.

As a result of those concerns, ONC created the regional extension center program, which was designed to help small and medium-sized providers, rural health clinics and other health centers. The recent changes to the meaningful use program have left many physicians wondering what will become of regional extension centers and if their services will still be available to them.

Since 2009, many physicians have worked with regional extension centers and used many of their consulting services. The physicians have received help with EHR implementations and in meeting meaningful use criteria.

Services offered by the regional extension center program

The concept of regional extension centers proved to be a useful initiative for many organizations. Regional extension centers provided key support to areas in which physicians needed the most help. A study performed by the American Institutes for Research concluded the regional extension center program supported physicians in achieving stage 1 of meaningful use, and that the participants used more EHR features than non-regional extension center program participants. The surveyors reached out to 18 regional extension centers and conducted 204 interviews. The study also drew on feedback from 2,306 physicians.

The assistance given by regional extension centers to physicians during their transitions to a new certified EHR includes educating the physicians on the different critical steps required to achieve a successful EHR implementation. These EHR assistance programs also include peer groups where physicians can share their experiences and discuss best practices to help each other navigate their journey of using a new digital chart.

Though several regional extension centers have prospered, many of them faced serious challenges that put many of them at risk of closing. Sometimes the consultants within a regional extension center disagreed over a healthcare practice's chosen EHR system, but they still had to provide their professional advice. Poor EHR selection or integration caused many medical groups to experience negative consequences and put their practices at risk of failure. In cases such as that, regional extension center employees had to attempt to help the organization correct its course. Another area that was difficult for regional extension centers to manage was getting access to adequate technical and health informatics resources. The market for skilled healthcare IT specialists remains highly competitive.

However, with the changes made to meaningful use criteria and the program funding winding down, healthcare organizations may be able to rely on their past experiences to deal with the changes they're sure to encounter in the coming years. Some may be able to apply all the lessons they learned from their early experiences in converting to an EHR system, while others will interact with hired consultants who will serve in advisory capacities similar to the roles previously held by regional extension centers.

The end of the regional extension center program may mean that future IT initiatives undertaken by providers may be at higher risk of failing to gain adoption, at least until other consulting services are made available to physicians to aid them in using health IT services.

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