VA, DOD lag on electronic medical data exchange

The Veterans Affair Department later this year will start testing the electronic exchange of medical data with the Defense Department, as soldiers separate from active duty, VA's CIO told lawmakers today.

'The development of interoperable health information systems will lead to a seamless medical record where authorized providers in one health system will have access to health data that resides in the other system,' said CIO Robert McFarland at a hearing of House Veterans Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigation.

But the General Accounting Office said the departments have made little progress toward achieving two-way exchange of patient health data in the HealthePeople initiative.

Data standards, electronic health records and clinical management promise to reduce medical mistakes and lighten paperwork for veterans.

Seamless electronic access will eliminate duplicative tests, freeing up scarce medical resource, McFarland said. Real-time access to electronic data also will reduce medication errors, such as adverse drug interactions, missed allergy checks and misreading of handwriting and verbal orders. And costs of handling electronic medical data will be much lower than for paper-based records, he said.

VA and DOD are expected to make their health information systems interoperable by next year, with common standards, interoperable health information software and data repositories, said McFarland, who has been on the job at VA about six weeks.

But VA and DOD have not even defined the electronic interface needed to exchange patient health information nor established a project management structure to oversee it, said Linda Koontz, director of GAO's Information Management Issues.

So far, the departments support one-way transfer of pre-separation data on all retired and separated service members and reservists. Data from the DOD Composite Health Care System is kept in a secure repository where it is available for viewing clinicians using the VA computerized patient record system. This data, under the Federal Health Information Exchange, includes admission, laboratory, allergy and pharmacy data. The Veterans Benefits Administration can access this information also to determine disability claims.

Bidirectional movement of pharmacy and demographic data will be tested by the end of the year, McFarland said.

VA and DOD have agreed to adopt additional data standards for uniformly presenting demographics, immunizations, medications, and laboratory tests data. The departments already have agreed to four standards for the transmission of messages and one standard for laboratory results.

'But any technology needed to achieve a two-way exchange of patient health information remains far from complete, with only DOD's data repository having been fully developed,' Koontz said.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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