Blumenthal has put an emphasis on input and collaboration—backed by regulation in the form of the HITECH Act and some $20 billion in government incentives for those organizations that become meaningful users of HIT. He works with industry trade groups and state and federal offices. He's enlisted thought leaders, formed committees of experts, and sought input from patient privacy and legal rights advocates. He's called on healthcare leaders to be participants and partners in determining the future of electronic health systems.
"We envision a future where information follows patients," he says. "Unconstrained by competitive rivalry, unconstrained by geographic boundaries, unconstrained by cultural disinclinations to collaborate. We want teams to emerge in local communities that make exchange possible. And we will be using the meaningful use framework and all other levers at our disposal to try to make that possible."
Standards and certification, financing, technology, logistics, privacy and security, software and hardware—there are a whole lot of questions for Blumenthal and his team-mates to answer.
How will competitors share health data without compromising the health of their own organizations? How can organizations afford to gamble their own time and money in electronic systems before the stimulus dollars start to flow? How do small physician practices navigate such a complex path to IT? How do they know if they're choosing the right system? And what, exactly, will "meaningful use" mean in future stages of the effort?
"There's no lack of work to be done," he says. "It is hard."
When it comes down to it, though, the answers to all of these questions don't seem as important as the lesson embedded in Blumenthal's story about the patient with the sulfur allergy—that Blumenthal was a better physician with the record than without it.
"These applications will win physician, nurse, and health professional loyalty to the technology. These are the things that will make them committed advocates," he says. "It makes them better at what they do, rather than just reporting what they do. They will see what so many others have seen: That patients are better for it. There is no stronger professional pull than making a professional better at what he or she can do."