VA, Georgia Tech to set up interoperability 'test bed'

By Bernie Monegain
11:28 AM

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 will 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.

Georgia Tech, which officials say is believed to be the first academic organization to connect directly to VHA’s system, announced the partnership June 26.

The two organizations have signed an agreement that will formally connect innovation facilities and allow researchers from both organizations to collaborate on specific projects.

The agreement also facilitates the use of the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA), VHA’s 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,” said Steve Rushing, director of Health@EI2, a healthcare innovation initiative at Georgia Tech. “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, noted Robert Kolodner, MD, who led development of VistA during his 28-year career at the VA. Kolodner 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 said. “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.”

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,” said 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,” said 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 (HITIDE) initiative." The HITIDE initiative supports the development of interoperable health IT systems by leveraging existing federal agency health IT test bed environments for a cross-agency, virtual, active, innovation ecosystem.

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.

“Industry is telling us that it needs a health IT work force with a different set of skills than what is now available in the marketplace,” said Marla Gorges, associate director of Georgia Tech’s Health@EI2 program. “Through the Gwinnett Technical College program, I3L will give students access to a wide range of commercial and open source systems.”

Already, Gorges said, the resources of I3L have been used in Georgia Tech courses, helping students to learn the real-world issues of health IT and propose solutions for them.

The overall goal for these initiatives is to improve patient care and community health through better exchange of information, said Rushing.

“Other industries have transitioned to electronic systems, but none of them has faced the complexity of the health care industry,” he added. “As the largest organization paying for health care services, the federal government has been pushing for an integrated health care information system that would allow patient records to be shared by all those caring for a specific patient.”

Georgia Tech’s expertise and experience with interoperability issues in other areas – such as connecting criminal justice information networks in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice – provides a foundation for what it expects to do in health care IT. Its connections to designers of medical devices, information security specialists and developers of wireless communications systems at Georgia Tech and elsewhere will also help anticipate the future of healthcare information systems.

“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,” said 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.”