Think of Dr. Farzad Mostashari as the nation's top health geek.

As President Obama's recently named national coordinator for Health Information Technology, Mostashari's job is to lead a $2 billion effort to get the nation's health care system wired.

The main push is to help hospitals, doctors and pharmacists computerize patients' records and to create a secure way to exchange them. But there's also a push to train the next generation of health information technology workers at the nation's community colleges and universities.

Minnesota's participation includes millions in grants that are going to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Normandale Community College in Bloomington, the University of Minnesota and Key Health Alliance, a "regional extension program" involving Stratis Health, National Rural Health Resource Center and the College of St. Scholastica to help rural doctors and hospitals in Minnesota and North Dakota create electronic health records.

The money is paying for studies on how electronic patient records can improve care as well as for training programs in health IT.

Mostashari said during a visit to Minneapolis last month that the federal effort, launched two years ago, is now moving into an "intense phase of implementation."

Q By 2015, the nation's physicians are supposed to get their records in electronic forms and be on their way to being able to exchange patient records. How is Minnesota doing?

A You guys are at the head of the class. We're very excited about progress that's been made in Minnesota in years before the program came along, but particularly since then.

Q How so?

A The Mayo Clinic has been a real beacon even before the Beacon Community Program in working with childhood asthma and Type 2 diabetes. Mayo is showing how to use technology in a smart way, across team members, to dramatically improve health care -- to make it more efficient, more coordinated and to deliver high-value care at lower cost.

UnitedHealth Group [through its Optum division] is transforming from being a traditional insurance company to really becoming a service provider to docs and hospitals who want to deliver accountable care. It's a major movement by one of the biggest players in health care to say, "let's identify who's likely to have a heart attack and let's prevent that in the first place, let's prevent that infection, let's prevent that readmission to the hospital, let's prevent that adverse event." We're finally paying for value, not paying for volume.

UnitedHealth Group is a marker, really, of how much the entire health care market understands that it's going to need to shift from just managing risk and churning out more claims faster and faster.

Q What are the challenges in rural areas?

A In some ways the hurdles and challenges are the same as those faced everywhere. How do you select a vendor? How do you do project management for an IT project of this magnitude? How do we make sure the patients benefit? How do we do this in a safe way? Making this shift is hard. That's what the regional extension centers are there for. The regional extension center that covers both Minnesota and North Dakota has worked with 424 primary care providers who are working critical access hospitals. That's an impressive number. They're doing a very nice job reaching out to those rural populations and underserved communities.

If I'm a patient and I just traveled 200 miles to go see a specialist, the last thing I need is for them to say, "Oh, we didn't get the paperwork. Would you mind telling us why you're here?" Having an electronic health record of your last visit, your lab work, your diagnosis that those providers - and even the patients -- can get through e-mail is as critical or more critical for rural health providers and their patients to be able to benefit from.

Q Are average citizens seeing changes?

A Minnesotans will increasingly be noticing their health care is different and better. They'll notice that they're getting reminders, not just for their cat or their car or their teeth, but they'll start getting reminders about their health. They'll notice when they're seen at the doctor's office, they'll be handed an after-visit summary, nicely printed out, with their medication spelled out and an opportunity to check those statements. They'll notice if they want to ask for their medical records, it'll be easier to get that electronically and they can share them with whomever they want to share them with.

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335