04/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Stimulus Bill Turns One Year Old: 'Meaningful Use' Should Not Be the Finish Line for Healthcare Reform

On the one-year anniversary of the ARRA's HITECH provision, we need to remember that exceptional use of electronic health records, not just "meaningful use," is the ultimate goal.

Here we are, February 17, 2010, the one-year anniversary of President Barack Obama's landmark American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), aimed to help jumpstart a sluggish U.S. economy. For those of us following its progress in the healthcare space, it's not surprising that the ARRA's Health Information Technology (HITECH) provision has prompted some of the more intensive debates among policy makers and along Main Street. Yet, despite the debate, what really stands out, one year post-ARRA, is that -- unlike with previous attempts -- the majority of the healthcare community actually endorses the plan's general architecture, which incentivizes healthcare providers to increase their adoption of information technology to replace existing, error prone paper-based processes. The technology exists today, it's now a matter of promoting widespread usage across the nation's healthcare system to really bring about monumental improvement. But the big question is: when we look to the finish line, will we set our targets for the minimum or the maximum that healthcare IT can provide?

The big buzz term at the moment, of course, is "Meaningful Use", which refers to a requirement for healthcare providers to achieve government-defined meaningful use of electronic health records in order to receive HITECH reimbursement monies. Let's be clear: meeting this objective is no small feat, even for healthcare providers with a significant base of health IT solutions already installed. That's because aside from simply installing these systems, hospitals and other health centers must be able to capture and report how these investments are meeting defined benchmarks. In addition, hospitals and clinics are dealing with the issues of system interoperability, resistance to change, how to generate enough investment dollars, and a shortage of manpower to support their new health IT investments.

But I think the healthcare industry needs to be careful not to become shortsighted. Meaningful use is only mile one in the healthcare reform marathon. It's designed to be the great equalizer and a catalyst for the US healthcare system to achieve even further improvements. Looking ahead, we need to drive beyond "meaningful", to "exceptional". Where we all want (and need) to arrive is a place where health IT is helping clinicians deliver exceptional healthcare services, and Americans are receiving exceptional care.

Fortunately, I feel confident that the groundwork is already being laid. Healthcare providers, policy makers, and health IT vendors are working now to arrive at a reformed healthcare delivery system built upon a robust health IT architecture that supports improved quality and efficiency, while keeping costs low, privacy paramount, and security a top priority. And all signs indicate that the US healthcare industry is thinking big. Do an Internet search for "Beyond Meaningful Use," and you'll find over 13 million hits showing that our biggest healthcare providers have already begun addressing how they can use healthcare IT to coordinate with other healthcare systems that exist beyond the boundaries of their own facilities. These are encouraging signs.

So as we pause today to mark this significant milestone, here's my birthday wish before we blow out the candles on the 1-year birthday of ARRA: Let's make sure that our vision and our collective ideas for making America's healthcare better through information technology continue to be as "stimulating" as they were when we first enacted this stimulus bill.

I am certainly not suggesting we overlook the immediate task of ensuring that every U.S. provider be able to achieve meaningful use. After all, we won't be able to make this giant leap forward without a solid running start. But if, through our discussions, we keep our sights on the horizon - on the ability to deliver exceptionally efficient, affordable, and safe patient care - then our healthcare system (and most importantly, the patients we serve through it), stand to benefit as a result.

Janet Dillione is the chief executive officer for the healthcare IT business unit of Siemens Healthcare