To stay ahead of doctors and residents who prefer to use Web-based applications rather than government-provided software, the Veterans Affairs Department has launched a project to provide potentially all 134,000 medical personnel with access to commercial collaboration tools hosted in a cloud computing environment.
VA, in a request for information issued to industry last Thursday, indicated it wants to host these collaboration tools in commercial data centers, with the caveat that those data centers must be located in the United States.
In December 2010, VA Chief Information Officer Roger Baker reported that orthopedic residents at the Chicago VA hospital had used a Yahoo calendar application to manage their work that contained sensitive information on more than 1,000 patients. Baker also discovered that clinicians at eight other VA hospitals had used Google Docs, which offers online spreadsheets, word processing programs and presentation software, to store patient information.
The VA viewed both of these instances as data breaches, Baker said. But at the same time, he acknowledged that Google and Yahoo provide "great tools," and said his job was to figure out how to keep up with the services offered by these companies and other commercial providers.
In a press call with reporters in July, Baker said he will soon allow VA clinicians and residents to access a commercial, cloud-based information sharing tool, but declined to name the product or provide a timeline.
The RFI made it clear that VA is trying to keep up with its tech-savvy doctors who will use their own software if Baker does not provide it. Data breaches, it said, "have been caused, in part, due to the lack of a VA-approved collaborative tool."
The department wants to conduct a pilot with 5,000 staff physicians and residents with document sharing and calendar tools, the RFI said. If successful, it could be rolled out to 17,000 staff doctors, 36,000 residents and 81,000 other medical personnel at the Veterans Health Administration.
Clinicians would use these tools to share sensitive patient information, accessing the cloud through the VA network or a secure gateway.
The RFI said VA also would use these tools to share sensitive patient information with the Defense Department, but it provided no details.
Veterans Affairs also is eyeing the use of cloud software as a substitute for its Outlook Exchange email system to share both sensitive and nonsensitive patient information, the RFI said. It asked would-be vendors to evaluate the potential of using cloud-based software to replace or augment its existing collaboration and office application suite, which includes SharePoint collaboration software, wikis and tools from Jive Software, which support collaboration, microblogging and social media.
The department wants to know if vendors can provide it with two or more 1-gigabit-per-second connections between the data centers and the VA network, as well as internal search capability for content in the cloud system. Vendors were asked to provide rough costs for training users in the pilot and potentially all 134, 000 medical employees.
Responses to the RFI are due Sept. 9.