'Health eVet' on horizon

Keeping track of medical records as you move from place to place can be

a problem — especially for veterans whose health care needs often are greater

than those of the general population.

With most records on paper or located on a mainframe computer at a VA

hospital, it's often impossible for a doctor to get the full picture of

a veteran's health needs. And that's why the Department of Veterans Affairs

has joined Microsoft Corp. and Electronic Data Systems Corp. to develop

a portable electronic recordkeeping system for 26 million veterans.

The system is a year or two away from being a pilot project and several

more from reality. But the VA hopes to develop the concept known as "Health

eVet" to help veterans get the best care they can and obtain accurate information

about health hazards they might have been exposed to while serving in combat

zones.

"The VA is the place where the health consequences of being in the military

really come together," said Thomas Garthwaite, the VA's deputy undersecretary

for health. "It makes sense that veterans turn to the VA for information

about what is new and understand the short- and long-term consequences of

having served in the military."

Within the VA health system, medical records can be moved from one hospital

to another. But less than half of the nation's veterans are eligible for

care at a VA facility. Finding information about them quickly can sometimes

be trying, not to mention life-threatening.

At last month's FOSE conference in Washington, D.C., Microsoft president

Steve Ballmer and other Microsoft officials described the benefits of a

unified medical system for veterans.

The technology to make it happen would include Windows 2000, Visual

Studio and the Internet Information Server — all Microsoft products — as

well as Extensible Markup Language. And it would put the patient, not splintered

medical data, in control.

"What we want to do is set up a Web site where veterans would be able

to store a copy of their medical data along with other data they might add

to it," said Robert Kolodner, the associate chief information officer at

the Veterans Health Administration.

Veterans who fall ill must call the facilities where their documents

are located and get them faxed to the facility where they are being treated.

This takes time, costs money and delays medical care.

But a secure Web site that includes a veteran's medical files could provide

information swiftly. "In the future, a vet will have their own health record

available, and that will help them achieve optimal health," said Len Bourget,

acting director of resources management for VHA.

In addition, veterans will get the latest information about their health

care options and reminders about medical tests — all programmed for their

online medical records.

Many unanswered questions remain. Chief among them are security and

privacy concerns. And the idea still needs the blessing of Congress for

funding.

Hundreds of vendors may want a piece of the action, too, something that

might create interoperability problems as they develop their own software

to store medical records.

"We really believe that, similar to the basic structure of the Internet,

you really open the power of communications that way. But we believe the

standards for transmitting information and recording it have to be the same

everywhere," Garthwaite said.

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