Patient engagement advocates leave ONC

Budgets shrink post ARRA, but ONC plans to fill the positions
By Bernie Monegain
11:32 AM
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Two advocates – one for consumers and the other for privacy, announced their leave-takings from the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, even as the agency itself reorganizes to accommodate a smaller budget post the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that injected billions of dollars into ONC.

Lygeia Ricciardi, director of the Office of Consumer eHealth at ONC, stepped down on July 25, and Joy Pritts left on July 12 after four and a half years as chief privacy officer.

While the programs and budgets at ONC may be smaller than in stimulus days, both the Office of the Chief Privacy Officer and the Office of Consumer eHealth will remain part of the agency.

As John Halamka, MD, CIO of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, put it in a recent blog: "Simply, the era of stimulus has ended and ONC no longer has the operating budget to do as many projects as fast as during the era of ARRA."

Ricciardi's role at ONC was focused on patient engagement. She has served in the post for three-and-a-half years.

In an interview this past year with Healthcare IT News Contributing Editor Anthony Brino, Ricciardi talked about her role.

"ONC has a real understanding of the importance of consumer engagement," she said. "When ONC was originally created, and even when HITECH passed, there was a lot of emphasis on providers and hospitals and their role in adopting electronic health records and using them meaningfully. But it's only in more recent years that it's become more generally understood that patients and consumers play a critical role, too. It's about using information technology to empower and enable consumers and patients to be better and fuller partners in their healthcare."

"Under Lygeia's leadership, ONC and the communities we serve have articulated a shared vision in which the consumer, patient or caregiver, enabled by information and tools, can participate more fully as a partner in both their own healthcare and health," DeSalvo wrote in her email to staff announcing Ricciardi's departure. "By collaborating with HHS leadership, news outlets and many other thought leaders, ONC has worked to put consumer e-Health 'on the map' for healthcare and technology leaders and, increasingly, the general public."

Prior to joining ONC in 2011, Ricciardi ran Clear Voice Consulting, which specialized in consumer eHealth. Before that, she was a director at the Markle Foundation, a policy advisor and speechwriter for the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and a research associate at Harvard Business School.

Pritts brought to ONC a "wealth of knowledge of and deep relationships in the health information technology and privacy communities," Karen DeSalvo, MD, wrote in a memo announcing Pritts' departure. 

"Thanks to her efforts, privacy and security have become engrained in the ONC culture and are increasingly being recognized as crucial elements of health IT by our stakeholders," DeSalvo added.

DeSalvo said it was clear that Pritts was committed to see her through the beginning of her tenure as national coordinator. She called Pritts the point person on privacy and security matters "an invaluable advisor on these crucial issues."

DeSalvo said Pritts helped ONC to have "a significant impact" on improving patient privacy, and helped in the development of regulations that give patients direct access to their lab test results.

"Joy and her team have made great strides in furthering policy and technology that improves individuals' ability to choose when and how their health information may be electronically exchanged," according to DeSalvo.

At the end of the memo, DeSalvo emphasized her own personal commitment to privacy concerns.

"I am committed to stressing the responsibility shared by all with regard to privacy and security in health information technology," she said. "Fortunately, Joy has built a strong team that will continue the important work she started, and will help carry on the legacy of work to ensure that health IT is used to improve the health of all Americans in a private and secure manner."

DeSalvo noted she will be working with Pritts to identify an acting chief privacy officer, as well as a permanent replacement to ensure a smooth transition.