Defense Health Agency focusing on IT for savings, efficiencies

Beyond migrating to a new electronic health records system, the agency is consolidating IT infrastructure, moving to DOD enterprise email and boosting R&D.

health data

One of the Defense Department's newest components is at the center of one of the Pentagon's biggest IT program overhauls, but the Defense Health Agency is also looking beyond an update of electronic health records to other ways technology can empower change amid budget cuts.

DHA will play a critical role in DOD's transition to a new health records system, but DHA leaders are also working on consolidating IT infrastructure, moving to DOD enterprise email, and boosting research and development.

DOD is expected to acquire a new commercial electronic health records (EHR) system this year to replace its aging AHLTA program. But DHA, which launched Oct. 1, will need to support existing features during the migration to the new system. Although the agency released a request for proposals on Dec. 31, 2013, to extend AHLTA support through at least 2019, DHA CIO Dave Bowen said a draft RFP for the new system will be released in the coming weeks and a final RFP will come in about a year.

"The new solicitation is basically a re-do of our current support contract," Bowen said Jan. 13 in an online chat hosted by Federal News Radio. "We will still have to support our current apps as we migrate to the new EHR, so that is what the contract is to support. It in no way changes our strategy to go out to the commercial marketplace for a new state-of-the-market EHR for the DOD."

Bowen said leaders at the agency are also hammering out many of the moving parts behind the new EHR. High on the list are the risks of transitioning to a commercial system, which include supply chain and other security issues.

"We know that there is a lot of stuff out there, some that we know about and some that we don't," he said. "The first step is one of discovery, to learn all that is out there. We need to know this for purposes of installing the new EHR and what it will have to talk to. Secondly, we will need to determine what needs to stay, what should not stay and how we deal with the implications of those decisions. We are working on the discovery phase now."

Meanwhile, Bowen said, he is bringing DHA in line with other DOD enterprise IT plans. That includes working with the Defense Information Systems Agency to create a medical community of interest network that will be part of the overall DOD network. The community will also fall in line with Pentagon plans for the Joint Information Environment.

DHA additionally is preparing to move to DISA's cloud-based enterprise email program. Bowen said the agency will begin migrating this spring and expects to finish in nine months.

The enterprise efforts are taking place against a backdrop of IT standardization and consolidation at DHA that involves network infrastructure and a rationalization process for the numerous and sometimes duplicative applications the agency manages.

"Rationalization...is going to be a big, tough deal, but it has to be done. It's the area of greatest potential savings," Bowen said. "For instance, we have 22 different e-learning systems," a situation that is not only inefficient but "frustrating for our users."

Bowen said those users in the military medical community help drive the ongoing improvement efforts.

"Our vision is to provide IT services and support down to and including the desktops at all [of] our hospitals and clinics," he said. "While it may take a while, it's our vision of the end state."

DHA's IT improvements in that and other areas -- such as standardized medical practices, multiservice markets, shared services and Tricare -- will save DOD more than $2 billion in the next five years, DHA Director Lt. Gen. Douglas Robb said in a Pentagon release.

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