Friday, December 31, 2010

Reflections at the End of Another Amazing Year for Informatics

Last year, in wrapping up the first year of the Informatics Professor blog, I marveled at how amazing the year of 2009 had been. I noted that the year started with both uncertainty and hope; the former fueled by the recession and the precarious financial state of Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) due to that recession and the latter driven by the excitement of the election of President Barack Obama and (at least for me) the hope for real change. By the end of 2009, it was clear that profound change had indeed occurred, if not generally then at least in the biomedical and health informatics field.

The hope and change, of course, were driven by the HITECH program with the president's economic stimulus package. At the end of 2009, the path forward was clear: health information technology would be driven by the concept of "meaningful use," and the part nearest and dearest to my heart, education and training, would be driven by the ONC Workforce Development Program, which itself was driven by Section 3016 of the HITECH Act that I played a role in influencing.

I spent the latter days of 2009 and early part of 2010 writing proposals, in particular for the curriculum development program and the university-based training program. With the Funding Opportunity Announcements (FOAs) for these and other programs, such as Beacon, SHARP, and regional extension centers, released in December and due in January, many in the informatics field lamented that ONC stood for the "Office of No Christmas." I spent a good part of my winter break last year working on these proposals. The only enjoyable aspect of the process was that they allowed us to envision how we could implement the educational programs we always dreamed of if we ever had the money, which now it looked like we did.

The most harrowing part of the year was the time between the submission of the proposals and receiving word about funding. As well-positioned as we were to receive these competitively awarded proposals, there was an undercurrent of fear that perhaps we forgot to address some required aspect of the program or that some reviewer felt we had taken the wrong approach. In all honesty, it would have been quite an embarrassment to not be selected for funding, since OHSU's program laid the groundwork for some of the thinking that had emerged surrounding health IT workforce development.

All the agony came to an end on Friday, April 2nd, when I awoke in the morning to find out that both OHSU proposals had been funded. For the curriculum development project, we were not only funded as one of the five curriculum development centers, but also chosen as the lead National Training and Dissemination Center (NTDC). For the university-based training program, we were one of nine programs selected for funding tuition assistance in our graduate program. A common quip in academia is that the downside to getting grants funded is that you then have to do the work. However, this was literally a dream come true. Between both grants, we were funded for $5.8 million to do what we always envisioned we could do if we had the funding. While the short-term emphasis of the funding (due to their being stimulus funds) required us to make some decisions we might otherwise not make, it was still a great position in which to be.

Also on the second to last day of 2009, the preliminary meaningful use rules were released. These were followed by a 60-day comment period, modification of the rules, and the release of the final rules on July 13th. I happened to be in a hotel room in Singapore (10 pm local time, 10 am Eastern time) when listening to their unveiling. While everyone had qualms with this criteria or that criteria, I believe that the majority of people were content with the approach to meaningful use taken by ONC.

With our own projects, we hit the ground running. Out of the gate, the curriculum development project required the most work up front. After a two and a half day workshop in Washington, DC the second week of the grant, we began our long quest that would result in the first version of the curriculum being developed and handed off to the community colleges by the end of October. Being the NTDC, OHSU also had to organize a training event for community college faculty in August and launch a Web site for dissemination of the materials around that time, both of which we did. We even added an aspect to the project of creating an educational version of the VA VistA electronic health record system.

The university-based training grant project was a little slower to get started, but not by much. With funding for 135 Graduate Certificate and 13 master's degree students over three years, our plan was to use the funding mainly as a form of tuition assistance for new students entering the field. We started providing support for students in the summer academic quarter and really ramped up in the fall. The main regret is that we have received two to three times as many qualified applicants as we having funding to accept. A decent proportion of those individuals have enrolled as self-funded students.

While a good proportion of my year was spent around these ONC initiatives, there were other achievements as well. Due to ONC and other funding, the Department of Medical Informatics & Clinical Epidemiology catapulted to second among the 25 departments at OHSU in external funding. We have many other initiatives in comparative effectiveness research, bioinformatics, and related areas. The big challenge for the department in 2011 and beyond is how to consolidate and build upon the success of the stimulus-era funding. I am confident we will find ways to do this, as the need for our disciplines to advance healthcare, personal health, and biomedical research will not diminish even as the federal budget tightens.

The coming year will also be an interesting one for the informatics world. How many eligible professionals and eligible hospitals will achieve meaningful use? What unforeseen bumps in the road will emerge? How will healthcare reform impact the use of health information technology? What will happen to healthcare reform itself? One thing is certain: we will live through exciting times!

I have now been writing this blog for almost two years. I have been pleased to have this type of forum to share my views on various aspects of my work. I am also pleased that others have noticed, not only the 129 people who follow the blog, but also winning awards like being on the list for the 2010 Top Math & Science Professor Blogs Award.

I plan to keep running the blog pretty much like I have been, with a fewer number of more substantive posts than the stream of consciousness approach used by many other blogs. I do hope to branch out a little bit more this coming year beyond workforce and education, as I occasionally did this year.

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