Coming soon: Health innovation that matters

By Bernie Monegain
01:04 PM

Georgia Tech-VA team up to create test bed

ATLANTA  -  In order to make big strides in healthcare IT  -  and particularly within the new collaboration between the Department of Veterans Affairs and Georgia Tech  -  Steve Rushing advocates taking small, smart steps. 

"We're about starting small and smart, releasing early and often  -  do things, put it out there, get feedback, particularly from the marketplace, and adjust quickly," he says.

Rushing is director of Health@EI2, a healthcare innovation initiative at Georgia Tech.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Veterans Health Administration's (VHA) Innovation Sandbox Cloud and the Georgia Institute of Technology's Interoperability and Integration Innovation Lab announced on June 26 they would collaborate to address interoperability issues, accelerate the development of integrated health IT solutions, test new products and help train the IT workforce needed to move the industry forward. 

Lofty goals. Yet attainable, Rushing says, with the small-and-smart approach he promotes, and with critical changes that have come about in healthcare and healthcare technology over recent years. 

The agreement between Georgia Tech and VA also facilitates the use of the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA), VHA's open source electronic health records system, to test new products and solutions. VistA already helps to manage care for 7.6 million active veterans across VHA's nationwide healthcare system and is often touted as the best electronic health records system in operation. 

"We believe that together we can do something really unique and important," Rushing says. "By connecting our interoperability innovation lab to the VHA's Sandbox Cloud, we can create joint project teams to work on specific challenges, work together to address industry issues and develop best practices, and test applications designed to run with the VA's robust electronic health records system." 

VHA and Georgia Tech share many of the same goals and, by working together, the organizations can leverage investments made by VA and other federal agencies, says Robert Kolodner, MD, who led development of VistA during his 28-year career at the VA. Kolodner, who is part of the team at Open Health Tools, a multinational nonprofit, serves as a strategic adviser to Georgia Tech on its healthcare IT initiatives. 

"This collaboration enables decades of health IT advances by VA to be combined with investments by other federal agencies and with resources from both the state and private sectors," Kolodner explains. "Together, they create a robust, diverse education and simulation environment. We can train the health IT workforce necessary to succeed as our national health IT initiatives improve the health and well-being of individuals and communities across the nation." 

What kinds of innovations might come from this collaboration?

"The areas of innovation we're seeing most of is one around engaging the consumers,"" says Rushing. "There are companies that understand how to communicate with the consumers and that in turn communicate back to their service providers. The idea is that the consumer should be involved more in decisions. Getting information in front of the consumer is going to be critical."

Another area ripe for exploitation, he adds, is the connectivity between devices and electronic health records "where a lot of the data capture itself is done at the lowest possible price point because we've substituted the devices for the labor."

Devices that do the data capture and then share it. We have a number of initiatives that are going to be kicked off that center on how do we capture the information from devices particularly to help chronic illness patients understand, monitor and manage their condition in collaboration with the clinician  -  whatever the clinical protocol is called for  -  not just at home but in their life. 

Georgia Tech students are an integral and valuable part of the innovation work, says Rushing. 

"Students are not caught up in all the things that held us back,' he says. They'll figure out quickly the quickest path to a solution, probably helped by a piece of open software, web service or browser plug for free. 

"We put such heavy loads on them," Rushing says, "typically they're all about saving the world the night before the project is due. They have to get it done quickly because they've got five other classes."

Georgia Tech's Interoperability and Integration Innovation Lab (I3L) was established to stimulate new ideas in health IT by creating a standards-based environment in which resources can be shared, barriers reduced, and new products more rapidly developed and introduced. Beyond addressing existing challenges for the industry, the lab will help participants  -  including academic and nonprofit organizations, as well as providers of both commercial and open source products  -  anticipate the trends and opportunities that will drive health IT in the future. 

"The I3L will help us understand how to create conformance in interoperable systems and how in the future all of the health and medical devices and systems can be tied together to create a seamless view of what's happening to the patient," says Jeff Evans, deputy director of the Information and Communications Laboratory in the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). "It will take us into the future of what healthcare is going to be, while also supporting the requirements of today." 

Sandbox cloud

VHA's Innovation Sandbox Cloud has a mission comparable to that of Georgia Tech's I3L.

"VHA's Innovation Sandbox Cloud serves as a virtual space to facilitate health IT innovation through collaboration and the development of new ideas, requirements and products that can become solutions within VistA," says Craig Luigart, chief officer, VHA Office of Health Information. "Our health data systems interconnection with Georgia Tech's I3L Sandbox is a landmark in the government's Health Information Technology Innovation and Development Environments initiative." 

Beyond connecting electronic health records systems and helping them share information, I3L will also link to Gwinnett Technical College's health IT certificate program to help expand the workforce needed to build and maintain health IT systems. The initiative, funded by the U.S. Employment and Training Administration, connects students  -  including veterans  -  to state-of-the-market training resources. 

 "We are standing up a healthcare test bed that builds on all our work in the past with how to tie networks together and ensure that they're set up in such a way that regardless of the network and the information exchange elements, we can still share elements and databases," says Evans. "We are setting up not only an interoperability lab, but also an environment where we can see how this will work in the future."