This year, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will be opening a new office in Boston for its Digital Service, a technical team tasked with revitalizing the department’s digital customer interfaces. This initiative is a cornerstone of VA Secretary Robert McDonald’s sweeping efforts to enhance the accessibility and responsiveness of the Department’s online services.
“The way we were approaching technology needed to be updated to match how software is developed in the private sector,” says Andrea Ippolito, a Presidential Innovation Fellow at the VA and part of the team launching the new unit. Ippolito is also a founding member of MIT Hacking Medicine.
The Digital Service will harness technology to tackle three main challenges: modernizing the Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) electronic health management platform; optimizing and accelerating benefits claims processing; and developing a comprehensive and cohesive digital suite of Veteran services with a single point of access.
The new team will also build upon the existing resources the Department has introduced to streamline Veterans’ online experiences. In February 2014, the VA launched its GI Bill Comparison Tool to help users calculate their benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill and discover opportunities for education and training. An interagency collaboration, the tool consolidates data that was previously housed in multiple digital locations and in a variety of different formats. Two months later, the Veterans Employment Center went live, connecting veterans, transitioning service members and military spouses with job opportunities and career advice, all in one place.
The Digital Service office will immediately focus on extending this innovative momentum to the VA’s medical system. In the wake of last year’s reports of falsified waiting lists and chronic delays in care delivery at VA hospitals across the country, the beleaguered Department has faced intense pressure to overhaul its healthcare management infrastructure. The Digital Service will focus on creating an open source, interoperable electronic medical record (EMR) to enhance the flow of health data. “We are the largest integrated health system in the country, and the majority of our patients receive both VA and non-VA care,” says Marina Martin, CTO of the VA, who will be leading the Digital Service initiative. “Working on health IT modernization and health data interoperability at the VA is a unique opportunity to experience this level of scale and impact.”
The selection of Boston as one of the first remote hubs for the VA Digital Service took into account the city’s key expertise in both technology and healthcare.
“While it’s common to think of Silicon Valley as the nation’s tech hub, we recognize there is great talent in other areas such as Boston,” Martin says. “Given the wealth of health-related startups and companies in the Boston area, we’re hoping to inspire some amazing health IT talent from the area.”
This VA initiative mirrors the United States Digital Service, the White House’s unit established last summer for initiating and managing high profile, federal IT projects. To generate urgency and attract top talent from the private sector, founding members of the VA’s Digital Service team will be hired for two-year appointments at GS-15 salary levels.
Meher is a post-baccalaureate pre-medical student passionate about global innovations that leverage technology to enhance caregiving and hospital workflow. She lives in Cambridge, MA.
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