By Matt Peterson, Executive Vice President,
Client Success and Growth at Ciox

Among the many services that the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) provides to our Veterans, rural health programs present unique challenges in serving those who are geographically separated from primary VA medical facilities. The Office of Rural Health (ORH) seeks to ensure that America’s Veterans receive high-quality care in rural communities, “by establishing and expanding national programs, as well as cultivating partnerships at the Federal, state and local level.”

By building out a series of programs and partnerships that address systemic Healthcare and access challenges for Veterans in rural communities, the ORH and the VA are improving the care rural Vets receive. Those programs include telehealth, tele-intensive care units, tele-mental health hubs, additional social workers added to rural care teams, transportation services, rural health training and education initiatives and remote telemedicine.

Yet, to meet Veteran needs, more is required of the Healthcare industry, especially in the field of medical records, where the opportunity exists not only for individuals to have their records managed more effectively, but also to use the entire Veteran health record operation to drive greater health and intelligence across the entire population of Veterans.

Challenges Remain

Despite the advance in ORH and VA services for rural Vets, providing for the health and wellbeing in these communities still poses significant challenges. Rural patients often rely heavily on civilian doctors in the community care network. However, these doctors are among the least likely to fully utilize electronic health records, and those who do are often operating on non-interoperable or disconnected systems. Often, all the VA receives as proof of a Veteran’s visit are dates of service and the diagnosis. While useful for reimbursement, that information doesn’t help the VA to serve the Veteran’s health needs in the long run or to manage care coordination across case settings effectively.

What the VA requires from the network of rural Healthcare providers is rich clinical data, in addition to dates of service and diagnosis. This data will help the VA and other physicians to better care for the Veteran and will support the overarching VA Healthcare delivery infrastructure to more effectively deliver benefits and manage populations.

Recognizing this need, the VA has invested considerable sums in sustaining and innovating the current VistA EHR and is executing additional sizable investments to modernize its EHR platform for the future.

However, VA faces the same data conundrum as health and life science organizations outside of the Government structure. Despite the industrywide trend toward interoperability (and the VA’s considerable investment in standardization and modernization), it is still difficult for organizations of all sizes to access complete and meaningful datasets from rural records because EHR standards vary so widely across the community care network.

Partnerships are Key

How then does the VA get their hands on the vital health data needed to keep Veterans thriving? Thanks to the available partnerships between the VA and health data companies with national release of information (ROI) and health information management (HIM) resources, and the cutting-edge technologies and infrastructures to make data interoperable, it’s increasingly possible to deliver rich clinical data to better support Veterans’ health.

The infrastructure already exists to return rich clinical data for the entire medical record request. What’s more, thanks to artificial intelligence, optical character recognition, machine learning and a host of other technologies, those documents can be delivered back to the VA, not as static PDFs or in paper form, but as interoperable, FHIR-compliant, actionable electronic records that can be aggregated with larger population datasets.

The capacity exists today to deliver charts and clinical documentation from anywhere to anywhere, to better serve Veterans in rural communities. While supporting access to care in the community, comprehensive medical information captured onsite at a civilian doctor’s office can still be meaningfully shared with the VA for both primary care and population health.

Given the aforementioned ORH goal to “establish and expand national programs, as well as cultivating partnerships at the Federal, state and local level,” these partnerships must continue to be elevated in today’s VA ROI environment to achieve the underlying goal of improved care and access to information.

With the right programs and partnerships in place, VA can work directly with health technology companies to access the rich clinical data that powers modern medical advances elsewhere in Healthcare. Partnerships that drive better care, better medical intelligence and more meaningful Healthcare insights would certainly help fulfill the national commitment to providing the best medical welfare for Veterans in rural communities.

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