Healthcare alliance VHA is about to unveil a sweeping, state-of-the-art effort to bring the data-swapping capabilities of Internet technology to all 1,400 member organizations nationwide via a secure network.
VHA has selected IBM Global Services to launch and operate the network, called VHAseCURE.net. The three-year agreement, which was close to being signed last week, could be worth as much as $100 million.
For healthcare systems with nothing more sophisticated than a World Wide Web site, the VHA program could create the basic foundation needed to connect data sources and make information available systemwide through technology originally created for the Internet.
For more advanced healthcare systems that already have fashioned such private Internet-style networks, called intranets, the program will facilitate the next level of information transport to distant healthcare partners and other VHA member organizations as well as to the alliance itself.
Eventually the network could provide a means for clinical and administrative leaders to put their heads together and accelerate the pace of healthcare improvement through electronic collaboration.
Interest in Internet-based technology stems from the ease of access it affords-access to the computer system by users and access to the data they seek throughout the healthcare system and beyond, said Stacy Cinatl, vice president of a new VHA division called the net solutions business unit.
"It's so easy to use, so low-cost and available that access has improved tremendously," Cinatl said. And a new breed of Internet tools allows users to grab information from existing information systems that normally would not be accessible because of incompatibility among different computer operating systems, she said.
The Irving, Texas-based alliance said it would help jump-start the program by allocating $25 million in shareholder equity reserves to help VHA shareholder and partner members pay for introductory-level service for the first year.
By taking the lead, the VHA will eliminate the redundant costs now being incurred by individual organizations to investigate, analyze and build intranets on their own, said Charles Burwell, senior vice president for information services.
VHA members had discovered they were going through basically the same process, including hiring consultants and looking at multiple security vendors, while seeking much the same solution, Burwell said.
VHA's agreement with IBM represents an opportunity to proliferate "a better solution as well as a less expensive solution in a shorter amount of time" compared with what a healthcare system could do on its own for the same thing, he said.
By brokering both the means to get started and a secure electronic network on which to branch out, the VHA will be using its leverage to accelerate adoption of a promising technology, Cinatl said.
Just as farmers once got together to collectively build cotton gins and storage vehicles for all to use, the VHA effort to build a shared information infrastructure will reduce direct costs of construction and operation for its members, she said.
The economy of scale is one aspect of the program that appeals to Bertram Reese III, corporate director of information systems for Sentara Health System of Norfolk, Va.
Not only does the program aim to reduce startup expenses, but it could trim the costs of operating and maintaining an Internet-style connection by centralizing such expense items as Web programmers, security monitoring and the creative process of home-page development within the VHA network, Reese said.
Most healthcare organizations don't have a well-defined Internet technology plan, which hampers efforts to get an intranet off the ground, he said. But the VHA program amounts to a ready-made description of the problem and strategic plan to address it, increasing the chances of getting something to the system board for consideration, he added.
The IBM security structure and de facto standard for exchange of secure data within and among health systems also addresses an obstacle that's held up action, he said.
Besides dealing with fears about sensitive patient tests and conditions, the common use of one network avoids inadvertent barriers to communicating with one another that might result from individual decisions on technology. "The combination of VHA and IBM will solve that for all of us," Reese said.
Security aspects of the program are what got Richard Carroll of Crozer-Keystone Health System to take notice.
The Media, Pa.-based system already has multiple tiers of Internet-style network capacity, including an intranet serving 246 physicians and a distance connection through an Internet service provider that handles heavy-duty corporate business.
But those networks have differing approaches and operating requirements for security, complicating the task of guaranteeing data safety, said Carroll, Crozer-Keystone's chief information officer.
By consolidating the networks under the VHA umbrella and handing over the operations, the healthcare system also transfers the responsibility for securing the electronic information, he said.
"My attraction (to the VHA proposal) was to offset the liability and exposure for confidentiality of information," he said. The system has signed a letter of intent to participate, but Carroll said he won't sign the final papers until he's satisfied that the alliance's presentation is "backed up by point and paragraph" on its promises of security.
The IBM Global Network includes a phalanx of security technology and monitoring that's already been in place for several years serving 30,000 commercial users in 850 cities and 150 countries, said Michael Grohman, vice president of sales for IBM Global Services.
With security fears eased, the network's ease of use could transform the way physicians, other clinicians and managers pool their knowledge to help each other get better at what they do, Cinatl said.
For example, the VHA envisions expanding and enhancing its "affinity groups"-healthcare professionals with common interests who now get together in person, through teleconferences or informally by e-mail to tackle issues.
Use of the network could accelerate the collaborative process as well as bridge problems of distance and manageable size that until now have kept the groups to about 20 to 30 people, Cinatl said.