Healthcare information technology is crucial to the Department of Veterans Affairs achieving its five strategic priorities, according to Poonam Alaigh, MD, the VA’s acting under secretary for health.

Alaigh told an audience on Friday at the 2017 Health Datapalooza conference in Washington that VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD, has laid out five priorities for the agency: greater choice, modernizing the healthcare delivery system, efficiency, timeliness of care and suicide prevention.

“Each of those five priorities has a key health information technology piece,” said Alaigh. “There is no better time than right now to be at the VA. We are embarking on such an amazing journey around using data analytics, health services research, bench research and clinical trials in order to help ensure that our veterans are getting the best possible care, the highest quality of care, and the timeliness of care.”

Recently, the VA launched a new online tool to provide patient wait time and quality of care data to veterans in what the Alaigh calls a first-of-its-kind system, with no other healthcare system in the nation releasing this type of information.

Also See: VA tool provides patient wait times, quality of care data

The internally developed Access and Quality Tool enables veterans to get a wide range of information, such as average wait times for patients to be seen in their local area; descriptions of veterans’ experiences scheduling primary- and specialty-care appointments at specific VA facilities; and quality of care data for VA medical centers, compared with local private-sector hospitals.

However, one of the biggest modernization decisions that the VA has on its agenda is replacing its legacy electronic health record system with a commercial EHR, Alaigh said. The VA’s decision on whether or not to replace its decades-old Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture (VistA) is expected by July 1.

“We do realize that we have to modernize our electronic health records, and there are various options that we’re evaluating right now—whether it’s using VistA in its current format but just being able to integrate it together, using a commercialized VistA product or another commercialized off-the-shelf product,” she added.

To become an efficient healthcare delivery system, the VA is utilizing big data, Alaigh said. She contends that the agency has a large amount of health data at its disposal, including “longitudinal data over decades” for veterans such as social, behavioral and medical history information.

Under the VA’s Million Veteran Program, Alaigh revealed that more than 560,000 volunteers have donated their blood samples for genetic analysis—as well as given permission to researchers to access their EHRs—linking it to lifestyle and military-exposure information. The ultimate goal is to secure 1 million participants to better understand how genes affect health and illness.

When it comes to veterans receiving “the care that they want and in the way that they want,” Alaigh noted that the agency is working on a number of technology initiatives to improve healthcare delivery. Among the VA’s high-priority initiatives in that regard is telehealth.

“We have one of the largest, most robust telehealth programs,” she said. “Our goal and our mission is to make sure every veteran gets care regardless of their geographic location.”

According to Alaigh, the VA is leveraging telehealth in “ways that no other healthcare system is using it.” The agency has conducted more than 2 million telehealth visits in the last year, reaching nearly 700,000 veterans on a regular basis, she added.

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