Grassley wants to be the customer's man in health IT

When the guy you think is the good cop becomes the hard man, you know you're in real trouble.

Someone get those readers who consider me a raving liberal, socialist, communist looney some smelling salts, and surround them with soft cushions before you let them see what follows.

Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley (right) is doing a solid service, seeking to be the "customer's man" on health IT.

Grassley is concerned that vendors are trying to hide their problems from prospects by telling their current customers to shut up about those problems. So he has sent out a letter, and a press release, asking 31 major hospital systems to detail vendor complaints.

It's a follow-up to a letter he sent major vendors last fall, demanding answers as to why their systems are so hard to install and use.

Critics may say he's trying to embarrass the Administration and especially National Coordinator for Health IT David Blumenthal, but Grassley's target here is the IT industry, and his criticisms seem very much in line with what Blumenthal has been trying to do by defining "meaningful use" as getting change out of data, not just inputting it.

Those rules are now going through their public comment period, with both hospitals and vendors complaining that the government is insisting on results when it would be so much easier to just check off features.

It would be, but filling out forms is not the point of the exercise.

The point is to give patients the knowledge they need to help themselves, and understand what their doctors are doing for and to them. It's to give hospitals the data they need to change procedures, to learn what is most cost-effective, and to build a data warehouse researchers can use to make new discoveries.

Grassley is concerned that vendors are leading hospitals down the garden path and picking their pockets. When even Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is saying the health IT market is "confused" and tough to jump into, you see the scope of the problem.

The vendors who dominated the last decade in the health IT space have to both deliver and innovate, now, stop promising and start doing. With the message coming out over Senate letterhead, from a Senator with a reputation for supporting business interests, it may finally get through.

Anyone who has seen a police drama knows this. When the guy you think is the good cop becomes the hard man,  you're in trouble.