Healthcare Analytics, Population Health Management, Healthcare Big Data

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Will Healthcare Data Analytics Suffer If DeSalvo Leaves ONC?

By Jennifer Bresnick

- It’s been a busy year for healthcare data analytics and interoperability expert Karen DeSalvo, MD, MPH, MSc, and change is in the air once again for the head of the Office of the National Coordinator.  After being drafted in October 2014 as Acting HHS Assistant Secretary for Health during the height of the Ebola epidemic, DeSalvo has been splitting her time between the two roles as the White House searched for a permanent Assistant Secretary for HHS.

Karen DeSalvo and healthcare data analytics

President Obama has decided to end that search right where it began by nominating DeSalvo to take on the Assistant Secretary role full-time.  If she is confirmed by the Senate, DeSalvo will leave her post at the Office of the National Coordinator and focus on her new duties exclusively, explained HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell in an email to staff.

“Karen's nomination now goes to the Senate for confirmation,” Burwell wrote. “As the Senate process moves forward, Karen will serve again as the Acting Assistant Secretary for Health. At the same time, as her confirmation is pending, she will continue to serve as the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. Please join me in congratulating Karen, and wishing her the best as the confirmation process begins.”

That will leave the top ONC spot position vacant again, less than a year and a half after DeSalvo took on the challenge of continuing the healthcare industry’s journey through EHR adoption and leading providers towards achieving the goals of the Triple Aim. 

After taking over from Dr. Farzad Mostashari, a driving force through the early days of the EHR Incentive Programs and a fierce proponent of patient engagement, DeSalvo has overseen early attestations for Stage 2 meaningful use while championing interoperability, clinical analytics, and population health management as key competencies for providers. 

Despite only serving for a relatively short period of time, her major accomplishments include the introduction of the ONC’s ten-year interoperability roadmap, the release of the Stage 3 meaningful use proposed rule, and the rapid uptake of value-based reimbursement and accountable care organizations across the public and private sectors.

While providers have generally embraced the understanding that an increased use of healthcare data analytics will help to drive greater efficiencies, improved patient safety, lower costs, and better outcomes, it is unclear how another shuffling of leadership during a very critical transitional time will affect the industry’s trajectory. 

Between the impending ICD-10 transition in October, the upcoming overhaul of quality reporting programs included in the SGR repeal, and the pending outcome of the King v. Burwell case awaiting judgement in the Supreme Court, the frequent turnover among top governmental leadership has rattled health IT advocates seeking stability in a rapidly changing and challenging environment.

“Health IT is a dynamic field; to successfully address the needs of patients, providers, and developers, ONC’s leadership team must be in-place over the next two years,” urged CHIME and HIMSS in November after several key officials moved on to greener pastures.

“Such constancy will pay huge dividends in navigating all the changes that must occur for positive transformation," the organizations continued. "The combination of skills and focus is paramount; without it, we question whether our nation can successfully address the next challenging level of meaningful use and the delivery reforms required in the Affordable Care Act.”

While it is a testament to DeSalvo’s early successes that her potential departure is causing so much concern, healthcare organizations feeling rattled by the constant stream of changes during a difficult revolution may wish for the next National Coordinator to buckle down for the long haul.

Will DeSalvo’s departure cause a significant disruption in the progress of healthcare data analytics as a tool for patient care?  Should the next ONC chief continue DeSalvo’s advocacy of health data interoperability as the most pressing issue facing the industry, or is there something more important to address first?  Leave a comment below to join the discussion.

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