The Defense and Veterans Affairs departments announced a milestone in their effort to combine their health records in what will become the world’s largest electronic system by 2017, the secretaries of both departments announced in North Chicago, Ill., May 21.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki briefed reporters after a tour of the Capt. James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center, the nation’s first fully integrated DOD-VA medical facility treating service members, veterans, military retirees and dependents.
“Over the past two days, as many of you know, world leaders have gathered in Chicago to affirm our commitment to finishing the job right in Afghanistan,” Panetta said. “This afternoon, Secretary Shinseki and I are coming together to affirm what in many ways is an equally important commitment: to care for and honor those who have protected our nation by serving it in uniform.”
The center — named for retired Navy captain and former NASA astronaut Jim Lovell, who was in the audience today — amounts to a proving ground for the DOD-VA joint operating concept. It incorporates facilities, services and resources from the North Chicago VA Medical Center and the Naval Health Clinic Great Lakes.
“In response to a challenge issued by [President Barack Obama] three years ago, DOD and VA have been working steadily to increase the amount of health information that’s shared between our two departments,” Panetta said.
What Obama envisioned in 2009 was an initiative called the virtual lifetime electronic record, or VLER, for the future of electronic health data sharing. Since that time, Panetta said, the centerpiece of the DOD-VA effort has been an effort to build an integrated electronic health record for service members and veterans that can be accessed at any DOD and VA medical facility.
Such an integrated electronic health record, or iEHR, is “one that is open in architecture and nonproprietary in design to expand information sharing, eliminate gaps between our two robust health care systems,” Shinseki said.
“This is key to seamlessness, critical to enhancing quality of health care, and essential to controlling costs,” he added.
“Today,” Panetta said, “I want to affirm that we are fully committed to putting this system, which will be the world’s largest electronic health record system, in place across the nation in 2017.”
The project’s first milestone will come in 2014, the defense secretary said. At that time, the departments will field initial operating capabilities of the integrated electronic health record at test sites in San Antonio and in Hampton Roads, Va., where DOD and the VA provide medical care to thousands of service members and veterans.
The iEHR will unify the departments’ now-separate legacy electronic health records systems into a common, secure system that makes service members’ and veterans’ health information available to them throughout their lifetimes.
During a media roundtable held today, experts from DOD and VA explained what a difference the new joint electronic health records could mean in someone’s daily life.
“If a service member is seen in a DOD hospital and the next week has an appointment in a VA hospital, you’d like all of that information to be available to the VA doctor, just like they’re being seen in the same hospital,” Roger Baker, VA assistant secretary for information and technology, told reporters.
“That really is our concept here,” he said, adding that something interesting happened during the first pilot test of a nationwide health information network.
As the first health record was shared between a VA facility and a private-sector facility, he said, the private-sector doctor said, “I didn’t know the patient had that allergy.”
“It was an allergy the VA knew about, but that the patient hadn’t told his private-sector doctor about, and clearly those kinds of allergies can have a tremendous impact on quality of care,” Baker said. “That ability to have a more comprehensive record can do life-saving things, frankly.”
In 2014, when the systems are rolled out in San Antonio and Hampton Roads, Baker explained, records for patients in the VA before then will be as they were.
“If you’ve recently moved from active service into veteran status,” he added, “the most important thing you will notice is that your VA doctor has a lot more access to information about your previous medical care in DOD than he or she may have had in the past.”
Probably more importantly, he said, doctors will see that information side by side with other treatment the patient may have had in the VA system, so they’ll have a more complete view of the patient’s entire medical history.
Beth McGrath, a DOD deputy chief management officer, said that in Hampton Roads and San Antonio in the 2014 time frame, “the clinical capabilities we’re deploying first are focused on laboratory and immunizations.”
Both experts said the Defense Department has sufficient funding in its budget for the effort.
At the news conference, Panetta said implementing and testing the new system over a period of years “will help us make sure that we are doing it right and that we have time to adjust based on experience in the field.”