DOD and VA join forces on e-medical records for in-patients

By Nancy Ferris
12:00 AM
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The departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs will work together to create a common inpatient e-medical records system.

Officials of both departments announced the initiative, instantly dubbed AHLTA-VistA, Jan. 23 at a meeting of the American Health Information Community in Washington, D.C. AHIC is a high-level health information technology advisory body.

VA Secretary James Nicholson called the move "an agreement that can change the future of electronic health records nationwide." He said the project is set to begin with a review of the clinical and business processes in the hospitals operated by both departments.

Until now, the VA has been developing its Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA) system, which includes a Computerized Patient Record System, while DOD has developed its AHLTA system mostly for records of outpatient care. AHLTA stands for Armed Forces Health Longitudinal Technology Application, but officials say the system should simply be known by the acronym.

Dr. William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said it was time to build a robust inpatient care module for AHLTA, while at the same time the VA was planning for the next generation of VistA. The technology specialists decided it made sense to work together and took a proposal to the executives involved, which they accepted, he said.

Although no one at the meeting mentioned it, Congress also has been pressuring the departments to settle on a single system in the interest of cost control. The departments have resisted, in part because of major architectural differences between their systems.

Meanwhile, they have been working to increase two-way electronic health record data sharing between the organizations, which often end up treating the same patients over the course of the patients' lives. Characterizing the relationship until now as "holding hands and serious dating," Winkenwerder called the announcement a great day for the two departments.

Although the departments' requirements differ somewhat, he said, they are "more alike than different."

"We will in effect become the model for other large health care providers to emulate," Nicholson said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt, chairman of the AHIC, called the announcement "a monumental event."