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April 29, 2014

DOD Health Care Competition Attracts Big Data Players

George Leopold

A pending Defense Department solicitation for a massive health care management system is touching off a scramble among federal contractors and medical IT specialists who would have to find ways to apply data analytics techniques to a huge Pentagon health records database.

The massive military program called Department of Defense Healthcare Management Systems Modernization is moving closer to publishing a final request for proposals. A DOD solicitation is expected in May.

In response, major players like IBM have been adding big data and cognitive computing services to their list of offerings available to U.S. agencies via the IBM Watson Group. The group was established in January 2014 to expand development and commercialization of cognitive computing techniques delivered via the cloud.

IBM’s Federal unit announced on April 24 that it would make big data and cognitive computing capabilities available to government health care clients. These include big data techniques for advanced clinical care and expanded research on data management.

It also named a new chief medical information officer, Dr. Keith Salzman, a former Army health IT expert who previously held a similar post with Virginia-based government contractor CACI International.

IBM said its strategy is to help federal agencies aggregate and analyze clinical data to improve health care and reduce soaring medical costs. IBM and other potential health care IT contractors are following the money. According to a Congressional Budget Office estimate, the federal government is expected to spend $13.95 billion on health care programs through 2024.

The massive DOD health care IT initiative was launched after a previous effort to merge medical records with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was abandoned. The new DOD effort is expected to cover an estimated 9.8 military beneficiaries, six medical centers, 45 hospitals, hundreds of medical and dental clinics, and more than 300 Navy ships. Complicating matters, about half of DOD beneficiaries receive health care outside the DOD network.

IBM and other IT vendors initially would be vying for a Pentagon contract to serve as an integrator who would oversee the entire health care IT project.

IBM cites is experience with deploying a health care offering that combines content analytics and natural language processing. It worked with medical software vendor Epic and Carilion Clinic, based in Roanoke, Va., to identify 8,500 at-risk heart patients. The partners said the pilot project could lead to early intervention, better care and health care cost savings.

The pilot project used IBM’s natural language processing technology to analyze unstructured data, including clinicians’ notes and discharge documents. This medical data is frequently overlooked as hospitals and clinics struggle with management of medical records.  

Epic could again partner with IBM or other companies vying for the Pentagon health care management contract. Other expected to compete for the integration contract include Northrop Grumman and Accenture.