What VA wants to learn from DOD's $4.3 billion EHR

As the Defense Department prepares to launch its new electronic health record system, the Department of Veterans Affairs will be watching for lessons.

Shutterstock image: medical professional interacting with a futuristic, digital interface.

As the Defense Department prepares to launch its new electronic health record system, Department of Veterans Affairs officials are hoping to learn from the effort and apply those insights to their own EHR plans for fiscal 2017.

The two agencies were asked to merge their systems into a single EHR in the early days of the Obama administration. Although that effort fizzled, DOD and the VA are operating under a legislative mandate to share data. They told Congress that they have functional interoperability between their systems, although some on Capitol Hill remain unconvinced.

Still, at AFCEA Bethesda's Health IT Day on Oct. 12, VA officials said the initial push to get the agencies to work together has helped improve health IT at both agencies.

"The product of that effort may not have resulted in, at that moment, the same EHR," said Elaine Hunolt, co-director of the Interoperability Office at the Veterans Health Administration. "But the primary product of that effort was highly valuable for interoperability.... It gave folks on the DOD side the chance to pull up the hood and look at the infrastructure and to simplify the complicated legacy infrastructures."

John Short, director of interoperability and enterprise shared services at the VA's Office of Information and Technology, echoed that assessment. The VA's work with DOD led to "a lot of opportunities to make things better, to improve security [and] to decrease legacy" technology in a complex environment, he said.

Steven Schliesman, deputy director of the DOD/VA Interagency Program Office, told FCW that the VA will be closely watching everything DOD officials do during the initial deployment of their new EHR system, planned for February 2017.

"It gives us great opportunities on everything from how they generated their requirements, the acquisition process they went through, the deployments and the challenges they're going to face in trying to figure out how to get interoperable with their legacy systems," Schliesman said. "There's no reason for us to rediscover what can be shared between departments."

VA officials have not yet decided whether to follow DOD's example and buy a commercial system. The VA's homegrown VistA is deeply embedded in the agency’s systems, health care practices and business management.

"We can't walk away from legacy VistA," Schliesman said. "We need to continue to enhance it to serve the needs of our veterans.... Leadership is taking a look at the transformation the VA needs to do to provide better care for our veterans, and they're exploring all the options."

Short said fiscal 2017 will be the first time the VA will truly tackle legacy systems and move toward interoperability and data analytics on a large scale.

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