Two information systems industry groups last week reacted with concern to healthcare alliance VHA's plans to promote a small number of software products to its diverse 1,200-hospital membership.
VHA intends to select specific products in key software areas and engineer a close contractual partnership with their development companies as part of a $22 million initiative to evaluate and accelerate the capability of software on the market to serve members' changing business needs (Oct. 2, p. 46).
The Irving, Texas-based alliance said it would provide an unbiased and comprehensive assessment of existing products based on a set of guiding principles aimed at serving hospital members, including their need to sort through vendor claims and slick demonstrations (See chart).
That's something sorely needed in a rapidly changing healthcare industry, said John Page, executive director of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society, which represents 6,000 healthcare information management professionals.
"That information alone may make it worthwhile to become a VHA member," Page said. But he said he has a problem with VHA pocketing that information and pushing one preference or computer solution.
"That's the same thing the vendors are selling themselves-that this will meet all the requirements for everyone," he said. "If it's just an initiative to come up with a list of 12 recommended companies, that would be disappointing.
"I would like to know how they got to that conclusion, and I may end up coming to that same conclusion" after comparing criteria side by side, Page said. "Even if they're only sharing it with their members, I'd be all for that."
Carla Smith, director of the Center for Healthcare Information Management, a trade group representing vendors, said the process should reflect the differing business situations and technology needs of providers based on size and market.
"I do understand that the VHA is attempting to find a solution to an old problem, and that is to find technically sound products for a healthcare provider," Smith said. "However, my concern is that one system is not necessarily the best for healthcare providers across the country."
James Burgess, one of two VHA senior directors of the project, said the evaluation and selection of vendor partners is "the initial phase of business we are executing and delivering."
The wider aims are to provide one-on-one consulting services to member hospitals on their information technology needs and to steer the development of emerging software and bring good solutions to market quicker, he said.
Depending on the type of product, VHA may have more than one choice to make, said Stacy Cinatl, the project's other director. For example, a wide range of sophistication and price in care automation, one of the eight targeted software categories, signals that the market is developing high-end solutions for large operations and low-end approaches for smaller hospitals, Cinatl said.
Partnerships with selected vendors also will allow VHA to use its size and influence to direct the development of valuable software tools the way healthcare users want them, Burgess said. VHA's presence can provide test-and-refinement sites, shorten the time to market and reduce the sales and distribution costs for both vendor and customer by shortening the buying cycle, he said.
That's what VHA plans to do with software that provides sophisticated scheduling capabilities for resources, patients and clinicians across an entire healthcare network, Burgess said. The project's evaluators haven't identified a product that qualifies, so VHA plans to find one that's close and strike a partnership with the vendor to make the software more complete.
The alliance did that with a hospital performance comparison system that it's now offering to its members. After buying a controlling interest in the development company, HBS International, VHA helped develop a prototype and get it to market in six months instead of the usual 18-month cycle, Cinatl said.
Providers don't have time to wait, she said. VHA's entry into information technology "is giving the (information systems) folks a wakeup call and saying it's time to start meeting our needs-faster, better and cheaper."
Guiding principles for VHA's information technology selection
The best products should:
Address strategic needs to improve community health, clinical effectiveness and operational efficiency.
Provide most of what clinicians need-highly relevant, high-quality data to manage care across a continuum of services and sites.
Be designed to add more features and power over the long term.
Meet unique needs but be replicable across a large market.
Provide the best solutions within categories quickly rather than be a comprehensive solution eventually.
Strive for a large impact with a few solutions rather than being all things to all healthcare organizations.
Be dedicated to enriching the family of products over time, and providing a vision and evolutionary path in addition to a set of products.