Veterans have been given more choices when it comes to their health care, and a new partnership with the 15,000 hospitals in the CommonWell Health Alliance network should make it easier to digitally share patient information between federal clinics and private sector health care providers.
The Veterans Affairs Department’s separate but concurrent efforts to digitize its patient records and streamline veteran access to private sector health providers come together at the joint health information exchange, which facilitates the sharing of patient information between VA and other agencies—like the Defense Department and Coast Guard—as well as private health care providers.
This week, VA’s Federal Electronic Health Record Modernization, or FEHRM, program announced the addition of CommonWell’s 15,000 hospitals and clinics to the program’s joint health information exchange, or HIE, network.
The exchange was officially stood up in April with 215 partners across the U.S., enabling most of those providers to send patient data from VA, DOD and the Coast Guard, and receive information from those agencies, as well. However, some providers only share patient data in one direction, either receiving data from federal agencies or providing it to them, but not both.
The ultimate goal is to enable veterans and active duty service members to move seamlessly between government health care providers and their private sector counterparts without needing to make official requests for important patient information, such as prescriptions, allergies, past lab results, immunizations, medical notes and more.
While April’s launch marked a major milestone, officials at the time were already looking ahead to the CommonWell announcement as a significant step forward.
“The CommonWell connection means VA, DOD, and USCG providers can access more information about their patients to make the best care decisions,” FEHRM Director William Tinston said in a release announcing the partnership. “The FEHRM drives federal capabilities, such as the expanded joint HIE to improve health care delivery, regardless of where patients get care.”
While other VA efforts stalled earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues, work on the health exchange continued unabated.
“As a clinician who is using the joint HIE, the more patient information I have access to, the more I can understand the full picture of my patient’s care and better meet their needs,” Neil Evans, VA primary care physician and clinical leader with the FEHRM, said in the statement. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, efficient electronic health information sharing is more important than ever.”
Health information exchanges are not new in the private sector but weren’t available at VA until the 2018 passage of the VA MISSION Act, which, among other things, prompted the agency to begin work on a data-sharing platform.
Prior to launch of the new exchange, veterans could share information with private-sector providers but had to file a specific form to opt-in. Under the new exchange, veterans and active-duty service members are automatically enrolled to share data with approved “participating partners.”
As with similar programs, patients can opt-out of the health exchange if they don’t want to share their health data.