VA open source agent set to go live

By Mary Mosquera
01:13 PM
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ARLINGTON, Va. -- The Veterans Affairs Department is set to make its open source agent operational tomorrow and make available the software code of various applications in the electronic health records of VA and the Defense Department.

Users of the applications will also have a method to report back to the open source agent changes to the software.

The operational Open Source Electronic Health Record Agent (OSEHRA) is the next step in the two departments moving toward an open, modular architecture that uses non-proprietary standard open interfaces, according to Peter Levin, VA chief technology officer.

[Related: Building a mammoth federal EHR, tech is the easy part.]

VA is developing an open source track to modernize its VistA electronic health record and will incorporate the approach with DOD in the joint system.

A custodial agent is an organization that has experience in establishing and operating an open source community, its processes and resulting products. 

VA expects to officially launch on Aug. 30 the open source agent Website, where interested users can register, download code for the modules and give code back. VA has tested, certified and evaluated the modules available through the open source agent, Levin said Aug. 29 at the Military Health Systems Information Management conference.

While VA already makes its codebase available, the feedback loop is new. “You can take that codebase from us, make changes and we now have a mechanism where they can give it back to us,” he said.

“The big idea is to make it easy, transparent and accessible for anybody whether it’s a large defense contractor or a kid in a garage in Nebraska. We want everyone pulling down code and looking at it, and being able to say, I know a fix, I have an improvement, I found a bug, I can extend the capabilities,” Levin said.

For example, a CIO in a VA facility or in the Military Health System may find at the OSEHRA website an existing module that would be useful in a clinic. Currently, VA has separate instances of VistA at its hospitals.

If the user finds a bug or for some reason the software doesn’t integrate with the system version, the open agent will have someone to contact. “When you figure out how to make it work in your system, we’re going to report it back to OSEHRA, so that everyone will know how to improve, fix or repair it,” he said. 

In June, VA awarded the Informatics Applications Group Inc. (TIAG), a management and technology services company, a $5 million contract to start operations of the open source community.

VA believes the collaborative method will generate innovation from more sources more quickly to advance the capabilities of VistA. Moving to an open source model invites innovation from the public and private sectors. VA will be just one of the participants in the open source community, although a large one.

[See also: VA to test cloud-based collaboration tools for physicians.]

VA’s path is not meant “to take dollars out of vendors and turn the world of implementation upside down. This is going to cost us about the same as it would have if we kept them separate,” he assured. 

“You go with open source because there is no way with a proprietary platform that you are going to stay near the cutting edge of new capabilities,” he said, noting that large IT procurements often are dated by the time they are deployed.