HHS awards network contract to share medical records

The Health and Human Services Department last week awarded a contract to Harris Corp. to build an information system that clinicians at four agencies can use to share patient medical records with the hopes of providing improved health care.

Part of the attraction of Harris' bid to build the National Health Information Exchange Gateway was a proposal to reuse health information technology it had built for a system used by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs and technology developed by the National Cancer Institute. Reuse of technology in government IT contracting is rare.

Under the contract, worth $6.1 million in the first year, the gateway initially will provide health care professionals in the Military Health System, the VA, the Indian Health System and the Social Security Administration with the means to access and exchange electronic records of patients who are participants in one or more of the systems operated by those agencies, said Dr. Bart Harmon, chief medical officer for the Harris Healthcare Solutions unit. In the second phase of the project, Harmon said HHS will provide open source code to the commercial health care sector to create a global network for health care information exchange.

Harris will provide the Gateway Core Services software, which providers can download to access the Nationwide Health Information Network. The NHIN is the primary component of a project that President Bush kicked off in 2004 to build a network of electronic health records for Americans. The architects of the NHIN say it will provide a secure, interoperable health information network, which will connect clinicians and patients nationwide. Harris also will furnish a software development tool kit to health care providers to customize their gateways.

To build the gateway, Harris plans to borrow technology that it developed for the Bidirectional Health Information Exchange, which clinicians at VA and Defense use to share laboratory, X-ray and allergy information for outpatients.

The gateway also will integrate technology that the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, developed for its Cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid. Mary Jo Deering, director for informatics dissemination at the National Cancer Institute, said the grid was developed using open source tools and applications that can be adapted for use in the gateway project.

Jim Traficant, vice president of Harris Healthcare Solutions, said he expects clinicians who provide care to service members, retirees and their families outside Defense-operated hospitals through the military Tricare health insurance system will be early adopters of the gateway and its open source software.

"A substantial portion of [military health beneficiaries] get their care from commercial health care providers, and we are creating a mechanism for exchange of information with them" and the Defense and VA health care systems, he said.

Traficant characterized the Gateway contract as a big win for the Harris Healthcare Solutions division, which was formed last year. The win reflects the company's ability to leverage its expertise with information sharing in the intelligence community to health care.

The gateway offers new ways to access vital medical information and "will be a valuable tool for saving lives and reducing costs by sharing and managing information," Traficant said.

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