The U.S. Secretaries of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Defense (DOD) have signaled their commitment to achieving interoperability between the two agencies by implementing a single, seamlessly integrated electronic health record (EHR), according to a joint statement published last week.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and Defense Secretary James N. Mattis signed a joint statement Sept. 26 pledging that their two departments will “align their plans, strategies and structures as they roll out a EHR system that will allow VA and DoD to share patient data seamlessly,” according to a press release about the joint statement.
“The Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs are jointly committed to implementing a single, seamlessly integrated electronic health record (EHR) that will accurately and efficiently share health data between our two agencies and ensure health record interoperability with our networks of supporting community healthcare providers,” the joint statement from Wilkie and Mattis states. “It remains a shared vision and mission to provide users with the best possible patient-centered EHR solution and related platforms in support of the lifetime care of our Service members, Veterans, and their families.”
The VA and the DoD are both undertaking massive projects to modernize their EHR systems and both departments plan to standardize on Cerner’s EHR. The hope is that this will provide a more complete longitudinal health record and make the transition from DoD to VA more seamless for active duty, retired personnel and their dependents. Once completed, the project would cover about 18 million people in both the DoD and VA systems.
The VA signed its $10 billion contract with Cerner May 17 to replace VA’s 40-year-old legacy health information system—the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA)—over the next 10 years with the new Cerner system, which is in the pilot phase at DoD.
DoD began rolling out its EHR modernization project, called Military Health System (MHS) Genesis, in January 2017 at Fairchild Air Force Base and three other pilot sites in Washington State. The DoD EHR overhaul contract, which was awarded in 2015 to Cerner, Leidos and others, is currently valued at $4.3 billion. The new EHR system is expected to be deployed at every military medical facility in phases over the next five years.
“There is no precedent for this level of interoperability in healthcare, but one can hope the DoD-VA effort will drive the evolution of meaningful interoperability forward and benefit everyone,” says Dave Levin, M.D., chief medical officer at Sansoro Health and former chief medical information officer (CMIO) for Cleveland Clinic. Levin has been observing the VA-DoD interoperability efforts and has written several blogs pointing out the critical challenges facing the two agencies in these efforts.
“There is a long-standing need for the VA and the DoD to be on the same information database for service members and veterans. Cerner is a good product. I am hopeful that Cerner’s commitment to the FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources) standard and to process interoperability standards will be revealed to the general community and implemented wholeheartedly, because at the end of the day, it’s not what’s best for VA and DoD, it’s what’s best for veterans and service members as they consume care along their own personal pathways,” says Shane McNamee, M.D., who previously served as the clinical lead for the VA’s Enterprise Health Management Platform (eHMP) effort and also the VHA business lead for the development and deployment of the VA’s Joint Legacy Viewer. He is now the chief medical officer of Cleveland-based software company mdlogix.
In the press release, Wilkie said the joint statement represents “tangible evidence” of VA and DoD’s commitment. “The new EHR system will be interoperable with DoD, while also improving VA’s ability to collaborate and share information with community care providers. This will ease the burden on service members as they transition from military careers and will be supported by multiple medical providers throughout their lives.”
Wilkie also said the new EHR system will give health care providers a full picture of patient medical history and will help to identify Veterans proactively who are at higher risk for issues, such as opioid addiction and suicide, so health care providers can intervene earlier and save lives.
Specifically, the joint statement pledges that VA and DoD will develop an accountability mechanism to coordinate decision-making and oversight. “The importance, magnitude, and overall financial investment of our EHR modernization efforts demand alignment of plans, strategies and structure across the two departments,” the two agency leaders stated in the joint statement. “To this end, DoD and VA will institute an optimal organizational design that prioritizes accountability and effectiveness, while continuing to advance unity, synergy and efficiencies between our two departments.”
VA and DoD will construct a plan of execution that includes a new organizational structure that optimally coordinates clinical and business workflows, operations, data management and technology solutions and a more detailed implementation timeline.
"We are committed to partnering with the VA to support the lifetime care of our service members, Veterans and their families," Mattis said in the press release. "This modern electronic health record will ensure those who serve our nation have quality health care as they transition from service member to Veteran."
An Uphill Battle for Interoperability
Interoperability between the VA and DoD has been a long-standing goal for both agencies, and the past two decades has seen the agencies making strides to achieve interoperability between two separate health IT systems. However, progress on this front has been slowed by both operational and technical challenges.
Back in April 2016, the DoD and VA signed off on achieving one level of interoperability, after the VA implemented its Joint Legacy Viewer (JLV) the previous fall. The JLV is a web-based integrated system that combines electronic health records from both the DoD and the VA, which enables clinicians from both agencies to access health records.
However, as reported by Healthcare Informatics, during a congressional hearing in July 2016, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) official testified that in 2011, DoD and VA announced they would develop one integrated system to replace separate systems, and sidestep many of their previous challenges to achieving interoperability. “However, after two years and at a cost of $560 million, the departments abandoned that plan, saying a separate system with interoperability between them could be achieved faster and at less overall cost,” Valerie Melvin, director of information management and technology resources issues at the GAO, testified at the time.
Melvin said that the VA has been working with the DoD for the past two decades to advance EHR interoperability between the two systems, however, “while the department has made progress, significant IT challenges contributed” to the GAO designating VA as “high risk.”
And, Melvin summarized the GAO’s concerns about the VA’s ongoing modernization efforts. “With regard to EHR interoperability, we have consistently pointed to the troubled path toward achieving this capability. Since 1998, VA has undertaken a patchwork of initiatives with DoD. These efforts have yielded increasing amounts of standardized health data and made an integrated view of data available to clinicians. Nevertheless, a modernized VA EHR that is fully interoperable with DoD system is still years away,” Melvin said during that hearing two years ago.
Fast forward to June 2017 when then-VA Secretary David Shulkin announced that the department plans to replace VistA by adopting the same EHR platform as DoD. Six months later, Shulkin then said that the contracting process was halted due to concerns about interoperability. According to reports, VA leaders’ concerns centered on whether the Cerner EHR would be fully interoperable with private-sector providers who play a key role in the military health system. VA leaders finally signed the Cerner contract this past May.
The Pentagon also has hit some road bumps with its EHR rollout. In January 2018, DoD announced the project would be suspended for eight weeks with the goal to assess the “successes and failures” of the sites where the rollouts had already been deployed. This spring, a Politico report detailed that the first stage of implementations “has been riddled with problems so severe they could have led to patient deaths.” Indeed, some clinicians at one of four pilot centers, Naval Station Bremerton, quit because they were terrified they might hurt patients, or even kill them, the report attested.
Media reports this past summer indicated that the Cerner platform was up and running at all four initial DoD pilot sites, with federal officials saying the agency is still troubleshooting the platform at the initial facilities, but the overall adoption’s shown “measurable success.” This month, media reports indicated that DoD is moving onto a second set of site locations for its Cerner EHR rollouts, with three bases in California and one in Idaho.
According to the VA press release issued last week, collaborating with DoD will ensure that VA “understands the challenges encountered as DoD deploys its EHR system called MHS GENESIS; adapts an approach by applying lessons learned to anticipate and mitigate known issues; assesses prospective efficiencies to help deploy faster; and delivers an EHR that is fully interoperable.”
While both Levin and McNamee praise the VA-DoD interoperability efforts, they note the substantial challenges the effort faces. In a January blog post, Levin wrote at the heart of this VA-DoD interoperability challenge are two fundamental issues: “an anemic definition of interoperability and the inevitable short comings of a ‘one platform’ strategy.”
In response to the joint statement issued last week, Levin provided his observations via email: “DoD and VA will have separate instances of the Cerner EMR. They will not be on the same EMR with a single, shared record but rather on distinct and separate implementations of the same brand of EMR. The choice of language in the announcement is interesting: they are saying they will create a single EHR [author’s emphasis] through interoperability between these separate EMRs and with the EMRs in the civilian health system, which is essential since a lot care for active duty, Veterans, and dependents is rendered outside the military system. This will depend greatly on the extent and depth of interoperability between the different EMRs.”
Levin continued, “My second observation relates to interoperability between the EMRs, or EHR system, and the many other apps and data services within military health IT. For example, there is an emerging class of apps sometimes referred to as ‘wounded warrior’ apps. These are specially designed for this population. They will need to be effectively integrated into this new IT ecosystem or their value will be greatly diminished, if not lost.”
McNamee points out there are different layers of interoperability—data interoperability, or ensuring data flows back and forth (the Joint Legacy Viewer achieved this level of interoperability, he says), semantic interoperability, in which meaningful information is associated with the data, and then standards-based process interoperability.
The lack of standards-based process interoperability continues to be a roadblock for all healthcare providers, and this issue has yet to be solved by any one specific EHR vendor, many industry thought leaders note.
“The challenges that VA and DoD face are similar to what the rest of healthcare faces in this country,” McNamee says. “There’s more than 10 million patients between these two organizations, meditated across thousands of different sites and the inability to transfer information and process for the VA and the DoD is similar as the rest of the country.”
He continues, “If you talk to any informatics or health IT professional about the most challenging thing that they’ve ever had to do in their career it’s to install an EHR into their hospital; it’s incredibly disruptive and, if not done well, it can negatively impact patient care, reimbursement and morale. VA and DoD are attempting to do this across thousands of healthcare sites, with millions of patients, and hundreds of thousands of healthcare providers, in one project, that’s a daunting task, to do that well and do that seamlessly.”