Information Technology:

VA and DOD Are Making Progress in Sharing Medical Information, but Remain Far from Having Comprehensive Electronic Medical Records

GAO-07-1108T: Published: Jul 18, 2007. Publicly Released: Jul 18, 2007.

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The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) are engaged in ongoing efforts to share medical information, which is important in helping to ensure high-quality health care for active-duty military personnel and veterans. These efforts include a long-term program to develop modernized health information systems based on computable data: that is, data in a format that a computer application can act on--for example, to provide alerts to clinicians of drug allergies. In addition, the departments are engaged in short-term initiatives involving existing systems. GAO was asked to summarize its recent testimony on the history and current status of these long- and short-term efforts to share health information. To develop that testimony, GAO reviewed its previous work, analyzed documents, and interviewed VA and DOD officials about current status and future plans.

For almost a decade, VA and DOD have been pursuing ways to share health information and create comprehensive electronic medical records. However, they have faced considerable challenges in these efforts, leading to repeated changes in the focus of their initiatives and target dates. In prior reviews of the departments' efforts, GAO noted management weaknesses, including the lack of a detailed project management plan to guide their efforts. Currently, the two departments are pursuing both long- and short-term initiatives to share health information. Under their long-term initiative, the modern health information systems being developed by each department are to share standardized computable data through an interface between data repositories associated with each system. The repositories have now been developed, and the departments have begun to populate them with limited types of health information. In addition, the interface between the repositories has been implemented at seven VA and DOD sites, allowing computable outpatient pharmacy and drug allergy data to be exchanged. Implementing this interface is a milestone toward the departments' long-term goal, but more remains to be done. Besides extending the current capability throughout VA and DOD, the departments must still agree to standards for the remaining categories of medical information, populate the data repositories with this information, complete the development of the two modernized health information systems, and transition from their existing systems. While pursuing their long-term effort to develop modernized systems, the two departments have also been working to share information in their existing systems. Among various short-term initiatives are a completed effort to allow the one-way transfer of health information from DOD to VA when service members leave the military, as well as ongoing demonstration projects to exchange limited data at selected sites. One of these projects, building on the one-way transfer capability, developed an interface between certain existing systems that allows a two-way view of current data on patients receiving care from both departments. VA and DOD are now working to link other systems via this interface and extend its capabilities. The departments have also established ad hoc processes to meet the immediate need to provide data on severely wounded service members to VA's polytrauma centers, which specialize in treating such patients. These processes include manual workarounds (such as scanning paper records) that are generally feasible only because the number of polytrauma patients is small. These multiple initiatives and ad hoc processes highlight the need for continued efforts to integrate information systems and automate information exchange. However, it is not clear how all the initiatives are to be incorporated into an overall strategy focused on achieving the departments' goal of comprehensive, seamless exchange of health information.

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