VA looks to Web 2.0 technologies to improve management

Electronic health records initiative and social networking sites are among the projects under way.

The Veterans Affairs Department is leveraging Web 2.0 capabilities to improve operations, the department's technology chief said on Thursday.

This includes developing Web applications to replace manual processes, and introducing social networking and cloud computing, said Roger Baker, assistant secretary for information and technology at VA, during an executive breakfast in Falls Church, Va., hosted by information technology consulting firm INPUT. Officials are paying close attention to protecting the privacy of sensitive information as Web 2.0 capabilities are introduced, he noted.

Among the most important ongoing IT projects, according to Baker, is the Virtual Lifetime Electronic Record initiative, which will smooth the flow of medical records between the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments through a joint electronic health record system. President Obama endorsed the effort in April.

"How do you have everything on both the administrative and benefits side available at the point of service, anywhere a veteran is being served? That's moving along well," Baker said.

Defense and VA completed the first step of the records initiative by making their computer systems interoperable, Baker said. Phase 2 will allow third-party health care providers access to the systems through the Nationwide Health Information Network, and the final phase will offer records-level interoperability by providing medical information at the point of care.

In a separate initiative, VA is using social networking to find innovate ways to reduce a backlog of benefit claims filed by veterans. The department solicited advice from employees through an internal Web site and has received about 3,000 ideas for improving processing and 6,000 comments so far. VA and White House officials will consider the recommendations as they develop a strategy to revamp management of benefit claims.

"This is what social networking is all about -- how do we get the organization to help improve itself," said Baker, who writes a blog for a different networking site established for VA's 7,000 IT employees.

"That's the power of the masses," he added. "Hierarchical management [structures] are important for getting things done, but they're rotten for communication. You need to figure out what good ideas are coming from folks in the field. I assure you, everything we're doing to improve things at VA has already been thought of by those 7,000 people."

Similarly, VA is examining different options for speeding up benefits enrollment for veterans, without "paving the cow path" by simply moving inefficient, existing processes online, Baker said. It currently takes about 75 minutes to sign up.

"If we don't use the newer technologies to help us make the process faster, we're going to continue to have the same issue," he said.

The department also plans to use cloud computing, in which software applications are stored and shared on the Internet rather than in-house computer servers. VA "will definitely go there," Baker said, pointing to the Veterans Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture for managing veterans' health records as a perfect candidate.

"It's difficult for VA to determine what the first thing we'll take into the cloud is going to be," Baker said. "We're going to get there [and] we have the technology and staff to make that happen, [but] the VA functions with the personal, private information of veterans in all operational systems. That makes it very important to be careful how you move toward things like cloud computing."