MUMPS to be retained for VA VistA system -- for now

Top Veterans Affairs IT official confirms Massachusetts General Hospital Utility Multi-Programming System computer language will run VA's medical record system

MUMPS is here to stay as the computer language for the Veterans Affairs Department’s electronic health record system — at least for the immediate future, said Roger Baker, VA's assistant secretary for information and technology.

Addressing a longstanding debate, Baker said on Aug. 26 he favors preserving the Massachusetts General Hospital Utility Multi-Programming System computer language for the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA) while officials pursue efforts to modernize VistA.

VistA was developed more than two decades ago in the MUMPS programming language and has since been expanded to cover millions of lines of computer code. MUMPS will remain at the core of VistA even as VA officials consider opportunities to modernize VistA through an open-source software development project, Baker told Federal Computer Week in an e-mailed statement.

“Maybe it’s because I have a background in computer languages, but I just don’t think MUMPS is much of an issue related to the open-source VistA discussion,” Baker said.

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“There are over 15 million lines of MUMPS code in VistA, so I just don’t see us deciding to recode all of that in another language right away,” he added.

VA officials have been concerned about how well modules written in other computer languages would interface with MUMPS code, but Baker said those concerns have been resolved.

“Lots of folks have weighed in to assure me that it is not a significant issue,” he said. “So I would expect an open-source VistA system to evolve over time as people choose the language they prefer to write new functionality.”

VA has been pursuing options for modernizing VistA for more than a year. Baker asked an Industry Advisory Council working group to offer advice, and the group recommended in May that VA use an open-source development program to update VistA.

Separately, industry members have offered strong opinions about whether MUMPS should be retained as the core of VistA. Ed Meagher, chairman of the IAC VistA Modernization Working Group, said he believed MUMPS was outdated and should be replaced. Other industry members favor preserving MUMPS because they say it is a stable and effective language. However, the working group officially recommended that a federal lab evaluate the options for replacing MUMPS.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Wed, Sep 1, 2010 Linda

VHA already IS interoperatble with other health care systems exchanging information with Kaiser, DoD and soon the State of Indiana Health Care Exchange. VHA is one of the primary established partners in the National Health Information Network (NHIN) developed under the auspices of the U.S. Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology (ONC. Not many 'modern' healthcare systems can claim similar interoperability success.

Wed, Sep 1, 2010 Wally

The ability interoperable is a question of the messages you send. This is why the Web is so popular because of a standard interface message.

Mon, Aug 30, 2010 Gordon Nevius Retired VA Director of Health Systems Tech Support

This is the best news I've heard since Dr. Kolodner announced that the VA had to get off MUMPS some ten or 12 years ago. At that time the larger VA hospitals were running on Digital Standard Mumps, DSM and only the smaller hospitals were running on the new Intersystems Cache M platform. DSM was owned by Intersystems but was had many limitations, such as 16gb volume limits and none of the advanced features of Cache. Dr. K. was not familiar with Intersystems Cache at the point when he directed the VA course away from MUMPS, but when we had to renew the contract for InterSystems support he wanted to buy Cache without any advanced features and wanted to block any improvements in VISTA based on MUMPS or Cache. If the VA was free to develop with things like Cache Web Pages, Cache Objects or Ensemble VA health care could make very rapid advances in Health Information Systems and VA care without the ten plus years projected to replace MUMPS and the corresponding hundreds of millions of dollars required to move off MUMPS. I had to work the spreadsheet where we ran the numbers and costs to get off MUMPS and the result was an amazing waste of money that should be spent on medical care for Veterans, not an unnecessary platform change. At least this is a ray of hope in what has been a long slow train wreck. Gordon Nevius Retired Director, EIE, Health Systems Technical Support ( the teams that directly worked with the main hospital information systems)

Mon, Aug 30, 2010 Nick

Stunning. I remember trying to sell RDBMS solutions into MIRMO and VBS over 20 years ago,and they were using MUMPS back then.

Mon, Aug 30, 2010 David Whitten Houston, TX

Speaking as an individual involved in Health Information Systems for longer than I want to remember, the issue of interoperability is not an issue of a common programming language, but of a common set of information definitions and behavior definitions. There is no system, computer-based, or human-based, that can share with another system if both parties don't do the hard work of making sure the semantics are compatible. You cannot simplify the many issues in interoperability by claiming that the deep issues reduce to a shallow choice of programming language.

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