VA blazing its own trail when it comes to government mHealth

Say what you want about the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and its bloated bureaucracy. One fact that cannot be disputed is that the VA continues to be a national leader in health IT.

Case in point: in 2010, the VA first launched the Blue Button initiative, providing easy, secure online access to personal health records. Today, Blue Button is available to veterans, uniformed service members, and Medicare beneficiaries, with more than a million people who have downloaded their own health information. In addition, other federal agencies and private sector partners like Aetna, Kaiser Permanente and UnitedHealth Group are all getting on the Blue Button bandwagon.

The VA is also the nation's leader in telehealth technologies, providing greater access to healthcare through the use of telecommunications and videoconferencing. In one instance, a VA national home telehealth program demonstrated a 25 percent reduction in the number of days of bed care and a 19 percent reduction in admissions.

The level of technology innovation and adoption spearheaded by the VA in the healthcare arena has tangible results. The VA is certainly the right proving ground for these technologies. The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is America's largest integrated healthcare system with over 1,700 sites of care, serving 8.3 million veterans annually.

However, much of VHA's infrastructure was designed and built decades ago under an outdated service model of healthcare delivery that focused on hospital-centered, inpatient care. In order to bring the agency into the 21st century and to adjust to modern realities and medical modalities, the VHA has embraced mobile healthcare technologies to improve patient care while lowering costs.

The epicenter of the VA's mHealth activities is the VHA's Connected Health Office, co-directed by Neil Evans, M.D., and Kathleen Frisbee, MPH, Ph.D.c. FierceMobileHealthcare had the opportunity to interview both recently about their ongoing mobile healthcare initiatives, and 2013 is definitely shaping up to be a pivotal year for their mHealth push at VHA.

The agency's mobile healthcare strategy is designed to meet three major goals. The first goal is to produce a secure environment for deploying apps, which is accomplished through encryption and mobile device management software. The second goal is to create an infrastructure that supports collaborative mobile applications development with shared services to foster standardization and reuse of code, which has been achieved through a cloud-hosted development and production environment. And, finally, the third goal is to design apps not as "discrete entities" but as suites of apps that work together to deliver better healthcare to veterans.

In total, VHA currently has more than 20 mHealth apps in development. Earlier this month, the agency released a suite of 10 Family Caregiver apps. As part of a year-long pilot test of this suite of apps that kicks off this month, VHA is providing 1,120 iPads to family caregivers of Afghanistan and Iraq veterans who have been seriously injured.

Granted, while VHA is only in the early stages of its mHealth implementation, the agency appears to be taking the right steps and laying the ground work for a successful mobile healthcare program. When it comes to mHealth in the federal government, the VA looks like the agency to watch. - Greg (@Slabodkin)