DoD shows off health IT progress

Monday - 6/14/2010, 6:55am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller interviews Col. DaCosta Barrow

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Col. DaCosta Barrow became the program manager of the Defense Health Information Management System about four months ago. One of the first things he wanted to do was make sure his customers, the military services, knew the extent of the medical records sharing going on.

So Friday, Barrow and his colleagues at the Military Health System hosted an open house at their offices in Falls Church, Va., to show off the Defense Department's electronic health record to senior leaders in the services and DoD agencies.

"I always knew about AHLTA, but I really didn't understand the linkages between AHLTA and associated systems that make up the electronic health record," says Barrow in an interview with Federal News Radio. "After coming to DHIMS, I felt I had to tell this story."

While AHLTA has been criticized for long-standing problems, Barrow says it along with several other systems are providing the expected benefits to wounded soldiers, military and private sector doctors and nurses and even combatant commanders.

"AHLTA has come a long way and has taken its beatings, but it's more than just that in all six facilities in the U.S.," he says. "It starts with a handheld device, point of injury care where we start the documentation."

He says from the handheld devices the data travels to battalion aid stations to combat or fleet hospitals to medical facilities in Germany and finally in the U.S.

Barrow points out, however, medical records of soldiers travel with them from the time they first enlist in the military through the time they are discharged.

"We use data to understand the fitness of the force," he says. "Commanders want to know the fitness of the force and its readiness and they can do that by exposing specific data elements that they track. In the Army, it counts against you as a commander if your force is not ready to deploy. So you can find out from the system what the force is lacking. It could be immunization records or other types of medical tests."

Barrow, who was the deputy chief information officer for the Army Medical Department for 18 months and the CIO for the Europe regional medical command before coming to DHIMS, says commanders see the data on an aggregate level, not on a solider-by-solider basis.

The information also helps commanders in theater. Barrow says they can tell if the company is in danger of coming down with the flu or stomach virus, and then can work with medical personnel to try to limit the problems.

DoD also is using the data to improve body armor and high-tech bandages. Barrow says the military analyzes information of where soldiers are wounded to change how the way the armor protects servicemen and women. The data also lets DoD better understand when to put on and take off these high-tech bandages.

Barrow says DoD's success with sharing medical records is translating outside of the Pentagon as well.

DoD is participating with the Veterans Affairs Department to use the National Health Information Network to share medical records with VA and private sector providers.

Barrow says the ongoing pilot in Norfolk, Va. is providing several lessons learned, including the need to improve identity management for patients and doctors to access records.

"There is the way we manage it, VA has another way and when you now go to civilian providers, they have a third way," he says. "We have to work on a national standard so everyone understands and gets away from using your social security number and some kind of patient identifier instead."

Barrow says in about a year, this pilot and others will give DoD boost in speeding up this sharing among the public and private sectors.

Along with more information sharing, Barrow says his other priorities include stabilizing the data input and sharing processes, ensuring the data is reliable and stabilizing the user's desktop computers through virtualization.

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