How federal health agencies can manage troves of patient information

Due to the passage of the PACT Act in August 2022 — a law that expands health care and benefits for veterans — the Department of Veterans Affairs is expecti...

Due to the passage of the PACT Act in August 2022 — a law that expands health care and benefits for veterans — the Department of Veterans Affairs is expecting a 50% to 100% increase in claims year-over-year.

In just over two months, veterans filed nearly 137,000 PACT Act claims, according to VA Secretary Denis McDonough. Notably, VA will not begin processing any PACT Act claims until 2023.

To successfully handle this massive influx of claims, VA is investing in cybersecurity and automation. Comprehensive healthcare data management (HCDM) will also be integral to reducing the burden on VA employees and ensuring successful mission delivery. All Americans are deserving of exceptional government service, but none more so than the nation’s veterans.

With 3.5 million veterans now eligible for new benefits, the VA has adopted digital intake and processing solutions to accommodate both paper and digital claims. While this is a strategic and necessary decision, it will undoubtedly result in an abundance of new data for VA to manage.

The spike in claims due to the PACT Act casts a stark light on the importance of IT modernization at VA. However, the need for improvements to healthcare data management extends to all federal health agencies.

Organizing and effectively utilizing troves of data can be extremely taxing. Moreover, if records are maintained improperly, patient health outcomes may suffer. HCDM can ensure digitization is successful and that the priorities outlined in the Customer Experience (CX) Executive Order are met. With HCDM solutions, the process of data integration is eased, and IT infrastructures become more organized and secure. Therefore, employee strain is reduced, and the door is opened for streamlined data intelligence, insights and innovation.

Guiding principles: Security, interoperability and governance

To maximize the utility of data compiled due to digitization, IT leaders must adhere to certain key principles. First and foremost, agencies should prioritize security and data integrity. VA’s request for a $107 million increase to their cybersecurity budget in fiscal year 2023 indicates a keen understanding of the urgent need to secure health data.

Federal healthcare data is highly valuable to threat actors and must be protected. Many cybercriminals have already abused the PACT Act for personal gain by scamming veterans to access their benefits or claim benefits on their behalf. To defend against malicious actors, cybersecurity best practices such as endpoint testing, penetration testing, enterprise identity and access management, automated incident response systems and vulnerability detection must be embedded into the foundation of any data management strategy.

Once data security is assured, IT leaders should turn their attention to interoperability and integration. The healthcare industry is composed of many disparate organizations, from federal agencies to pharmacies, providers, patients, medical laboratories and more. An interoperable HCDM strategy would enable seamless data sharing among all the necessary institutions. With efficient data-sharing comes timely and informed decision making for patient health needs. Moreover, the countless hours saved on administrative and logistical coordination can be repurposed on higher value CX tasks.

Unfortunately, proprietary systems struggle to communicate with modern software which limits interoperability. Therefore, data standards, like Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources, should be implemented to ease collaboration challenges.

Another core pillar for successful data management is data governance, the process of managing the availability, usability and security of data in enterprise systems. Data governance is designed to assure the integrity of the lifecycle of patient information. Data cataloguing and governance are vital for data to remain a strategic asset rather than a source of confusion. For instance, if the lifecycle of patient information contains inconsistencies, critical health information can be misinterpreted. HCDM can help with the governance process by gathering conflicting data to be corrected.

Immediate and long-term benefits on EX and CX

Once mature HCDM strategies and policies are achieved, the potential advancements throughout the healthcare landscape are boundless. All federal agencies are mandated to focus sharply on CX, and luckily, HCDM can improve CX directly and indirectly. A robust data management system frees up valuable time for government healthcare workers which alleviates strain and betters the overall employee experience (EX).

Positive EX strengthens CX because employees can devote their attention to citizen needs. VA acknowledges the inherent connection between EX and CX. As such, VA established an EX capability within the Veterans Experience Office to increase employee engagement and likewise improve customer satisfaction.

HCDM implementation offers immediate, tangible advantages for organizations, as well as far reaching potential applications in the future. Accurate, real-time patient data can prompt faster diagnoses, resulting in quicker treatments or access to benefits. Additionally, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies are picking up steam in the federal healthcare space given their capacity for predictive modeling.

When considering present and forward-looking HCDM applications, it’s important to recognize that the healthcare industry is constantly evolving. Flexibility and agility are integral for any federal agency seeking to utilize their available data effectively.

Every federal health agency is at a different stage of the digitization process and has unique needs and use cases. Therefore, agencies looking to bolster their data management practices should seek counsel from experts in the HCDM field to create a plan tailored for their specific needs. Regardless of these unique paths, all federal health agencies will benefit from improvements to their data collection, storage, security and analysis practices.

Judy Jiao is CIO at National Government Services.

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