Original Research

Usage of and Attitudes Toward Health Information Exchange Before and After System Implementation in a VA Medical Center

A quality improvement project demonstrated a meaningful improvement in VA staff satisfaction regarding access to community-based health records after implementation of an externally developed health information exchange system.

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More than 9 million veterans are enrolled in the Veterans Health Administration (VHA). A high percentage of veterans who use VHA services have multiple chronic conditions and complex medical needs.1 In addition to receiving health care from the VHA, many of these patients receive additional services from non-VHA providers in the community. Furthermore, recent laws enacted, such as the 2018 VA MISSION Act and the 2014 VA Choice Program, have increased veterans’ use of community health care services.

VHA staff face considerable barriers when seeking documentation about non-VHA services delivered in the community, which can be fragmented across multiple health care systems. In many VHA medical centers, staff must telephone non-VHA sites of care and/or use time-consuming fax services to request community-based patient records. VA health care providers (HCPs) often complain that community records are not available to make timely clinical decisions or that they must do so without knowing past or co-occurring assessments or treatment plans. Without access to comprehensive health records, patients are at risk for duplicated treatment, medication errors, and death.2,3


To improve the continuity and safety of health care, US governmental and health information experts stimulated formal communication among HCPs via the 2009 Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health (HITECH) Act.4,5 One of the primary aims of the HITECH Act was to promote reliable and interoperable electronic sharing of clinical information through health information exchange (HIE) for both patients and HCPs. Monetary incentives encouraged regional, state, or state-funded organizations to create and promote HIE capabilities.

Presently, empirical data are not available that describe the effect of external HIE systems in VHA settings. However, data examining non-VHA settings suggest that HIE may improve quality of care, although findings are mixed. For example, some research has found that HIE reduces hospital admissions, duplicated test ordering, and health care costs and improves decision making, whereas other research has found no change.3,6-13 Barriers to HIE use noted in community settings include poorly designed interfaces, inefficient workflow, and incomplete record availability.3,6-10,14

A few US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers have recently initiated contracts with HIE organizations. Because much of the present research evaluates internally developed HIE systems, scholars in the field have identified a pressing need for useful statistics before and after implementation of externally developed HIE systems.13,15 Additionally, scholars call for data examining nonacademic settings (eg, VHA medical centers) and for diverse patient populations (eg, individuals with chronic disorders, veterans).13This quality improvement project had 2 goals. The first goal was to assess baseline descriptive statistics related to requesting/obtaining community health records in a VHA setting. The second goal was to evaluate VHA staff access to needed community health records (eg, records stemming from community consults) before and after implementation of an externally developed HIE system.


This project was a single-center, quality improvement evaluation examining the effect of implementing an HIE system, developed by an external nonprofit organization. The project protocol was approved by the VA Pacific Islands Healthcare System (VAPIHCS) Evidence-Based Practices Council. Clinicians’ responses were anonymous, and data were reported only in aggregate. Assessment was conducted by an evaluator who was not associated with the HIE system developers and its implementation, reducing the chance of bias.15

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