DoD, VA health IT records require speaking in 'same language'

Wednesday - 11/2/2011, 9:22am EDT

Beth McGrath, deputy chief management officer, DoD

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By Jack Moore
Federal News Radio

The Defense and Veterans Affairs Departments have been pursuing creation of a single, compatible health IT record. It would start when service members enlist and would stay with them after they muster out of DoD and become clients of Veterans Affairs health care.

Beth McGrath, the deputy chief management officer at DoD, joined joined the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris ahead of the 2011 AFCEA Bethesda Health IT Day.

McGrath discussed why an interoperable electronic health record — or EHR — makes sense and how the project is coming along.

DoD Deputy Chief Management Officer Beth McGrath. (Photo: Defense.gov)

"We have a terrific opportunity between our two organizations," McGrath said of DoD and the VA, "because we have a common customer &mdash and our common customer is our military member. And so that really provides terrific alignment between two organizations and gives us, really, a common focus."

Each department, on its own, had been working to update their respective EHR systems. Earlier this year, those disparate efforts were fused when VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates signed a memo, enshrining into official policy the creation of a common EHR system between the two departments.

McGrath said movement toward jointness allow both departments to "capitalize and utilize common data standards, common business processes and also consolidate the data," she said.

The "strategic focus" on providing service members with health care, has helped align the efforts, McGrath explained.

She said she thinks of DoD as a primary service provider while troops are on active-duty. "And then it should be a seamless transition when they move into the VA's care," she added.

"That's not to say it won't come with challenges," she said. Developing common business processes, for example, won't be easy, she acknowledged. "But with the right governance wrapper around all of it and driven by the secretaries of the two departments on down, I think our odds are favorable."

The main hurdle in the effort seems to the sheer volume of data. While troops' names — one data point — remain constant, there are myriad ways to define and exchange that data, McGrath said.

"If you can't talk in the same language between the two organizations, then it makes developing a common record very difficult," she added.

As for cost-savings, McGrath said she is virtually sure there will be some, by better defining elements, greater use of commercial solutions and reducing duplications. But it's still difficult to quantify those savings, she said, "as we're just starting down our collective joint path."

Check out more coverage of AFCEA Bethesda Health IT Day 2011.

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