VA Turns to IBM Watson to Improve Veteran Care

By Frank Konkel // December 15, 2014

IBM's Watson computer
IBM's Watson computer // IBM/AP File Photo

IBM’s Watson technology – first made famous in 2011 after besting human competitors on the television game show "Jeopardy" – is now turning its computing power toward improving veterans’ health care.

The Department of Veterans Affairs announced today a two-year pilot program with the company worth $6.8 million, signaling the agency's intent to assess innovative and emerging technologies that could benefit the 8.3 million veterans requiring care each year.

IBM’s Watson technology “will ingest hundreds of thousands of Veterans Health Administration documents, medical records and research papers” and distill information and knowledge to clinicians in near real-time, according to IBM.

During the pilot, Watson will base clinical decisions on realistic simulations of patient encounters – not on actual patient encounters – providing a test-bed for how computers might handle patient care decisions.

“Physicians can save valuable time finding the right information needed to care for their patients with this sophisticated and advanced technology,” said Carolyn M. Clancy, VA’s interim undersecretary for health, in a statement. “A tool that can help a clinician quickly collect, combine and present information will allow them to spend more time listening and interacting with the veteran.”

IBM will support VA care providers in ...

In Off-the-Grid West Africa, How Can Tech Fight Ebola?

By Jack Moore // November 6, 2014

A healthcare worker dons protective gear before entering an Ebola treatment center in the west of Freetown, Sierra Leone.
A healthcare worker dons protective gear before entering an Ebola treatment center in the west of Freetown, Sierra Leone. // Michael Duff/AP File Photo

Leveraging technology to combat Ebola in West Africa was always going to be an uphill fight.

“You have very little cellphone coverage,” said Steven VanRoekel, chief innovation officer at the U.S. Agency for International Development. “You have unreliable power everywhere. Devices you would want to put out to the field probably can’t connect to the Internet.”

Health care workers trying to communicate with each can wait for as long as 24 hours for a single text message to inch across 2G cell networks, he said.

“We hear stories about people climbing to the top of an anthill or a tree and holding their phone up so they can get data downloaded on it, and then they go down and they can send an email,” he said.

So, suffice it to say, VanRoekel, the administration’s point-man in using technology in response to the outbreak, is clear-eyed about the challenges he faces in his job.

“The key here is that technology is not the solution to Ebola,” VanRoekel, said Thursday at a Washington, D.C., event hosted by FedScoop.

Instead, the former federal chief information officer is asking, “What can technology do … to help us make better, faster decisions ...

Race is On for Defense Health Record – but VA Backs Out of Competition

By Bob Brewin // October 30, 2014

Amanda Hsu/

Four commercial vendors will submit proposals Friday for the Defense Department’s $11 billion electronic health record system contract. But the Department of Veterans Affairs has backed off an idea floated by former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to enter a new version of its own longstanding EHR system into the competition.

Teams bidding on the Pentagon’s EHR system – formally known as the Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization – are:

  • Computer Sciences Corp., partnered with HP and EHR developer Allscripts
  • IBM, aligned with Epic Systems
  • Leidos, joined up with Accenture Federal
  • PricewaterhouseCoopers, with General Dynamics Information Technology, DSS Inc. and MedSphere as partners

Shinseki told lawmakers at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing in March that VA had started development of a new version of its decades-old and proven Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture – or VistA – that would be equivalent to commercial software.

 “We want to be in competition for [the] DOD [EHR],” Shinseki said.

But Genevieve Billia, a VA spokeswoman, told Nextgov today: “VA never planned to formally bid in DOD's acquisition. VA supports DOD's need to replace its system and understands DOD is pursuing an open competition.”

She added: “Our prior statements referenced VA's ...

Watchdog: Pentagon Failed to Develop Blood IT Systems

By Bob Brewin // October 28, 2014

Senior Airman Kendall Thomas, 379th Expeditionary Medical Group Blood Trans-shipment Center laboratory technician, and Maj. Brian Dart, 379th MDG BTC chief, verify blood products before shipment.
Senior Airman Kendall Thomas, 379th Expeditionary Medical Group Blood Trans-shipment Center laboratory technician, and Maj. Brian Dart, 379th MDG BTC chief, verify blood products before shipment. // U.S. Air Force

The Defense Department has failed to adequately develop blood information systems over the past 13 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq despite spending a total of $289 million, the Pentagon inspector general reported last week.

The latest review, which is a follow-up to an October 2001 IG report, said the Armed Services Blood Program Defense Blood Standard System – or DBSS – has miscounted the inventory of blood products, including those used in combat, and that the Pentagon has failed to develop a single, integrated portfolio for the blood information technology system.

The officials in charge of the effort “could not demonstrate after 13 years that officials implemented the necessary actions to mitigate the identified system problems as agreed,” in 2001,” Amy Frontz, principal assistant inspector general for auditing, wrote in the Oct. 23 cover letter to Jonathan Woodson, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, accompanying the report.

In 2001, the IG first recommended DBSS be replaced with a new system – the Enterprise Blood Management System, or EBMS -- which would help eliminate inventory problems as well as the requirement that data be manually entered into the system.

The IG, in its current report, said the donor portion of EBMS ...

Is Big Data the Solution to VA’s Health Care Woes?

By Mark Byers // October 17, 2014

everything possible/

Mark Byers is the president and CEO of DSS, Inc.

The pace of change in health care is fast and furious, but one thing is constant: a shift from reactive to proactive patient care.

And the key component fueling this shift is data, which is becoming more accessible and used to inform more decisions each day. 

Health care organizations -- including the Department of Veterans Affairs -- must ensure the proper technology and strategies are in place to transform a field from one that primarily reacts to changes in patient health to one that proactively keeps watch over and anticipates patient health needs.

The difficulty comes when providers don’t have the tools to leverage their data.

They must have systems that help them use existing data or create data to streamline workflow and improve clinical decision support.

To illustrate this, we’ll examine two examples of leveraging big data in different departments of a hospital or health system -- oncology and radiology.

Big Data Improves Efficiency

Support for oncologists is a perfect example of what’s possible when big data is successfully harnessed. Cancer treatment plans are complex, taking into account the type of cancer, the stage it's in, the patient ...