Military medical facilities plagued by IT problems

Dysfunctional, disparate information technology systems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and other medical facilities that treat service members are inviting errors, some lawmakers say.

Tom Davis of Virginia, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, "remains deeply concerned about aging, inadequate and stovepiped data systems in military medical-support operations," said David Marin, the committee's GOP staff director.

In Davis' work on rampant pay errors going back to 2004, it became clear to him that medical, pay and personnel systems in the Defense Department were not integrated, Marin said. "Elaborate workarounds -- usually involving fax machines and paper copies of another system's digital records -- required repeated manual re-entry of data."

Walter Reed patients often are mired in bureaucracy "while two or more offices point to each other and wait for information," Marin said of the people his office has helped.

The Army hospital has come under fire in recent weeks over reports of poor living conditions, overwhelmed personnel and incompatible recordkeeping systems. Data management problems extend beyond Walter Reed, Marin said.

Davis hears from injured service members elsewhere who are experiencing "delays in treatment, lost paperwork, repeated demands for the same information," and other aggravations, Marin said. "No one speaks the same language."

Davis will continue to push for a Defense Department-wide patient-tracking system, Marin said.

Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., who sits on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, shares Davis' concerns about the never-ending maze confronting service members, Norton spokeswoman Doxie McCoy said.

There may be no connection between health IT and the headlines about problems at Walter Reed, but the attention brings an opportunity to update the entire military health-care delivery system, said David Merritt, a project director at The Center for Health Transformation founded by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.

The Veterans Affairs Department's world-class health IT system is separate from Defense's system, Merritt said. All of the healthcare information that servicemen receive while on duty does not follow them, "even though you're talking about the same person," he said. "It makes no sense to have two different systems for these people."

Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon testified to the Oversight and Government Reform National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee this month that he has been in limbo for two years partly because the Army "lost" his records. "Inadequate IT management is certainly one piece of this puzzle, which is why it is something we are investigating," subcommittee Chairman John Tierney, D-Mass., said in a statement.

Walter Reed officials stressed that the Army has the largest e-records system in the world. "This system has been fielded at every military treatment facility and allows for practitioners to review medical records from patients in Iraq and across the globe," according to Walter Reed spokesman Steve Sanderson.

He acknowledged, however, that an Army inspector general's review, which was initiated by the Army secretary in April 2006 and released March 12, found that administrative records on the physical disability evaluation system "were not being kept as consistently as they could be."

Sanderson added that the VA's e-records system has access to Defense's military systems, "and research efforts are well under way to link these systems."

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