Regional extension center officials want to continue work, though original mandate is ending

Federal backing for the country's more than 60 health information technology regional extension centers ends in February, but officials for the centers are making plans to continue their work.

Leaders at the RECs believe their successful experience helping small and rural providers navigate the world of electronic health records, as outlined by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, can be applied in new ways and with new financial backing.

"They are building out their funding sources beyond the federal government," says Kimberly Lynch, director of the Regional Extension Center program in the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology.

And what they are doing seems to be a little bit of everything. In Oklahoma, for example, they're helping providers keep data secure. "Many providers realize there is a great deal more they should be doing [with privacy and security] and have turned to RECs as an expert source," Lynch says.

They've played a big role in helping such rural provides as critical access hospitals increase adoption of electronic health records. A recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Harvard School of Public Health and Mathematica highlighted data showing that physicians in small towns or rural areas increased adoption rate of EHRs to 43.5 percent in 2012 from 30.8 percent in 2010. The percentage of rural hospitals with at least a basic EHR reached 33.5 percent in 2012, up from 9.8 percent in 2010, according to the report, called "Health Information Technology in the U.S.: Better Information Systems for Better Care, 2013."

With health care and its use of IT continuing to evolve, a need for RECs' expertise should continue among providers. The creation of such things as accountable care organizations and patient-centered medical homes is creating opportunities for RECS to assist rural and smaller clinics and hospitals deal with the new environment, she says.