Leavitt will chair the 17-member American Health Information Community charged with accelerating a nationwide transition to networked electronic health records.
Health care costs now represent about 15 percent of the GDP, said Leavitt, that's three times the percentage in 1960.
While much of the increase is due to new technologies, economists estimate that about a third of the health care spent is wasted in services like redundant tests.
For health IT to decrease this waste, Leavitt said, the industry needs to share information so providers can better assess what services a patient needs.
Sharing information requires shared standards, and these standards should come from government-led "guided collaboration" rather than from government mandate or the "last vendor standing" in a competitive marketplace.
Scott Wallace, head of the National Alliance for Health Information Technology (the Alliance), a consortium of health care payers, providers and technology vendors, said the move was "an unprecedented level of engagement by a Cabinet secretary in fundamental technology," and that his involvement might hasten the development of standards by taking them out of a business and policy vacuum.
"The private sector tends to be pretty slow" at developing standards, said Wallace. "Debates are not occurring between the clinicians and businesses who will use them but the technologists that develop them, and that's not good."
At a speech in February, David Brailer, the National Health IT Coordinator, hinted that if the industry failed to adopt common standards, the government would be forced to step in.
But Rob Seliger, CEO of Sentillion and chair of the interoperability working group at HIMSS (Health Information Management and Systems Society), welcomed Leavitt's involvement despite a risk of excessive government involvement.
"I think he goes into it not with the intent of a heavy hand but with being a catalyst. The fact that he's going to chair it is a monumental step for this industry."
The AHIC will help "line up all the rails," said Leavitt, a reference to problems in the U.S. railway system in the 19th century, when regions laid down tracks of varying width that could not be shared across the nation.
The AHIC will include members throughout the health care industry, as well as local and state governments. HHS will solicit nominations for members of the committee.
Leavitt said that the AHIC would provide deliverables within months, and hinted that these would include a process for setting standards for interoperability and certifying compliance.
The Certification Commission for Healthcare Information Technology, an industry collaborative that formed last year by the Alliance, announced Monday that "the goal of creating a credible, voluntary process for certifying electronic health record [EHR] products is in sight," and that a certification program would be in place by the end of the year.
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