Policymakers need accurate reporting on Beacon programs

The funding for ONC's Beacon Communities program is slated to run out in 2013, and officials and other stakeholders are beginning to point to the program’s successes.

But as the assessments continue -- and, perhaps more importantly, as the lessons of the Beacon program are translated into policy -- care should be taken to distinguish between infrastructural or technological advances and actual improvements in health.

According to this article, at a recent meeting of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC)’s Health IT Policy Committee, Janhavi Kirtane, director of ONC’s clinical transformation and dissemination efforts, stated that  “The Beacons are exploring new frontiers for health IT, generating a lot of different insights — some clinical, some technical, and some on the measurement side. We’re hoping to connect that with ONC, serving even as test beds for standards and policies.”

That’s a good summary of the core purpose of the Beacon Communities, but a closer look at the reports coming out of each community show just how easy it is for the various “successes” to get jumbled together.

For example, after reviewing each of the 2-3 page summaries currently available on ONC’s Beacon Community webpage, we’re inclined to conclude that the programs have done well in an infrastructural or procedural sense, but it’s still too early to have a clear idea of the tangible health benefits the overall effort will yield.

To compare just a couple of themes listed in the “Improving Health, Care and Costs” category, there are numerous items along the lines of “Fifteen clinics have implemented workflow redesign and are receiving practice transformation coaching,” but not nearly as many such as “QHF providers in the area served by Beacon have seen an improvement of 3.5 percent in the number of their diabetic patients with acceptable ranges of blood glucose levels (HbA1C).”

Our point is not to quibble with the reports of progress thus far – again, it is early – but rather to remind policymakers that from the beginning of the HITECH effort, arguably the key rationale for the significant public investment has been that the transition to health IT will result in improved health outcomes.

In order to demonstrate the return on the public’s investment, then, assessments of progress will need to be clear about how new health IT has improved the public’s health, as opposed to all the other changes, however beneficial, that have accompanied the new technology.