Information Technology:

Challenges Remain for VA's Sharing of Electronic Health Records with DOD

GAO-09-427T: Published: Mar 12, 2009. Publicly Released: Mar 12, 2009.

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Valerie C. Melvin
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For over a decade, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) have been engaged in efforts to improve their ability to share electronic health information. These efforts are vital for making patient information readily available to health care providers in both departments, reducing medical errors, and streamlining administrative functions. In addition, Congress has mandated that VA and DOD jointly develop and implement, by September 30, 2009, electronic health record systems or capabilities that are fully interoperable and compliant with applicable federal interoperability standards. (Interoperability is the ability of two or more systems or components to exchange information and to use the information that has been exchanged.) The experience of VA and DOD in this area is also relevant to broader efforts to advance the nationwide use of health information technology (IT) in both the public and private health care sectors--a goal of both current and past administrations. In this statement, GAO describes VA's and DOD's achievements and challenges in developing interoperable electronic health records, including brief comments on how these apply to the broader national health IT effort.

Through their long-running electronic health information sharing initiatives, VA and DOD have succeeded in increasing their ability to share and use health information. In particular, they are sharing certain clinical information (pharmacy and drug allergy data) in computable form--that is, in a format that a computer can understand and act on. This permits health information systems to provide alerts to clinicians on drug allergies, an important feature that was given priority by the departments' clinicians. The departments are now exchanging this type of data on over 27,000 shared patients--an increase of about 9,000 patients between June 2008 and January 2009. Sharing computable data is considered the highest level of interoperability, but other levels also have value. That is, data that are only viewable still provide important information to clinicians, and much of the departments' shared information is of this type. However, the departments have more to do: not all electronic health information is yet shared, and although VA's health data are all captured electronically, information is still captured on paper at many DOD medical facilities. To share and use health data has required, among other things, that VA and DOD agree on standards. At the same time, they are participating in federal standards-related initiatives, which is important both because of the experience that the departments bring to the national effort, and also because their involvement helps ensure that their adopted standards are compliant with federal standards. However, these federal standards are still emerging, which could complicate the departments' efforts to maintain compliance. Finally, the departments' efforts face management challenges. Specifically, the effectiveness of the departments' planning for meeting the deadline for fully interoperable electronic health records is reduced because their plans did not consistently identify results-oriented performance goals (i.e., goals that are objective, quantifiable, and measurable) or measures that would permit progress toward the goals to be assessed. Further constraining VA's and DOD's planning effectiveness is their inability to complete all necessary activities to set up the interagency program office, which is intended to be accountable for fulfilling the departments' interoperability plans. Defining goals and ensuring that these are met would be an important part of the task of the program office. Without a fully established office that can manage the effort to meet these goals, the departments increase the risk that they will not be able to share interoperable electronic health information to the extent and in the manner that most effectively serves military service members and veterans. Accordingly, GAO has recommended that the departments give priority to fully establishing the interagency program office and develop results-oriented performance goals and measures to be used as the basis for reporting interoperability progress. The departments concurred with these recommendations.

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