An initiative by healthcare alliance VHA to create an Internet-style communications network for its members has led to signed contracts with about 60 organizations and letters of intent with 40 others.
The first sites are scheduled to be connected to the electronic network, called VHAseCURE.net, on July 18 for an initial evaluation of the technology's performance and ease of use, says Michael Cummins, vice president of management information services at VHA.
The network officially opens for business Aug. 1. The charter group of 60 VHA organizations comprises 130 hospitals with an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 users.
The network initiative, announced in April, is an attempt to bring the data-swapping capabilities of Internet technology to all 1,400 members of Irving, Texas-based VHA. IBM Global Services was hired to operate the network and provide technical assistance in a three-year deal that could be worth as much as $100 million (April 14, p. 34).
Much of the preliminary work has focused on determining healthcare organizations' readiness to transfer data under the technical protocols developed for the World Wide Web, Cummins says.
The basic foundation, called an intranet, uses the same innovations that have allowed software programs called browsers to seek data from different sources without regard for compatibility of software and hardware. Incompatibility has been a significant barrier to access and data transfer until recently.
Instead of using the public Internet, however, an intranet uses the private lines of a provider organization's computer network, aided by powerful processing computers called servers.
IBM will operate VHAseCURE.net on its IBM Global Network, providing a secure way to make information accessible outside the boundaries of an organization's intranet. The IBM network will enable providers to connect with a developing lineup of VHA information services as well as to other business partners equipped to trade data using Web technology.
About 20% of the provider organizations evaluated for participation in VHAseCURE.net already were in varying stages of implementing an intranet, while an additional 30% to 40% were considering an intranet strategy, "and we hit them at the right time," says James Burgess, VHA's vice president of information technology services.
An intranet operation requires adequate infrastructure between Web-based servers and computerized information sources. Providers also must have a well-defined strategy for using browser technology, Cummins says.
The alliance has allocated $25 million in shareholder equity reserves during the first year to help members pay for introductory-level service.
Burgess says the deal with IBM is giving members a deeply discounted implementation and connection package compared with what they could arrange individually. Early estimates assumed the basic package would be one-fifth of what it would cost providers to replicate on the open market. Since then, the package has been running as little as one-tenth the open-market price.