VA's VistA health IT system could be national model

Wednesday - 11/10/2010, 9:11pm EST

James Herbsleb, computer science professor, Carnegie Mellon University

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Could the IT health system at the Department of Veterans Affairs serve as a model for hospitals and doctor's offices across the country?

The Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA) program is "a huge success story," said James Herbsleb, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, in an interview with the DorobekINSIDER.

Herbsleb refers to Phillip Longman's book "Best Care Anywhere" that explores how the VA's system could be a model to help save the U.S. Health care system.

According to a report Herbsleb co-wrote, "The VistA software could form the basis of a thriving ecosystem that would drive down cost and unleash innovation."

Herbsleb advocates making VistA open source, an effort already underway by the VA's Chief Information Officer Roger Baker. Moving VistA to an open source community "harnesses innovation much more effectively than if all the development is done inside a single organization," Herbsleb said.

"With technology like this, in a certain sense, you just put them out there and people make them into what they need," he said.

But the VA must determine how all of the innovation can build on each other. There should be a structure for a "single distribution of the software," where everyone uses the distribution and contributes back to it, Herbsleb said.

"So all the improvements go into the same software," Herbsleb said.

The VA will also need to separate the core platform from an application platform that allows applications to be built on top of it, Herbsleb said.

The move to open source will also create business opportunities for companies that can grow the technology.

"VistA has the potential to be much larger and much more interconnected than any ecosystem we have now," he said.

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Roger Baker, the chief information officer at VA, said he will lead an effort to move VistA into the open source community.