Defense Health Agency Paving the Way for Digital-First Health Care Delivery

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In its mission to create a more patient-centered health care delivery system, the Defense Health Agency is implementing new digital health information technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning.

AI, including machine learning, allow systems to make connections that would be difficult or impossible for a human to make as quickly or accurate. AI learns from examples given, rather than being programmed.

“The role of AI, machine learning, and predictive algorithms in health care is getting more attention as this technology advances, and we in the Military Health System are no exception,” said Dr. Lester Martínez-López, the Department of Defense’s assistant secretary of defense for health affairs at the Defense Health Information Technology Symposium, held in August 2023 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

“We need to catch up, and lead in developing trustworthy, effective AI solutions,” Martinez said. “I see so much potential for AI to help us provide better care to our patients.”

Health IT was the focal point of the annual symposium, and experts shared their views on developing this capability to improve healthcare.

Experts believe the use of AI and machine learning can drive down costs, increase readiness, and optimize personnel performance within military health care.

Access to Data Key to Functionality of IT Tools

Digital health tools use data to provide quality service for providers and help determine if service members can deploy. These resources also provide a better, more accurate, and safer electronic health record.

“From predicting emergency room wait times to advanced medical diagnostics, the underlying techniques of machine learning have huge potential to improve how we provide health care in an impactful and meaningful way,” said Martínez

The more the system is used, and the more accessible the data, the more it becomes trained to make better correlations between what is entered by the provider and the information being sought.

For example, the DHA is using machine learning algorithms to identify deployability limitations of a service member.

According to U.S. Navy Cmdr. (Dr.) John de Geus, chief health informatics officer for the U.S. Navy, AI will enable doctors to quickly and efficiently access all the various military and occupational standards relevant to service member and the clinical care being provided to them, in order to recommend medical readiness and deployability limitations to a provider.

He noted that none of these technologies would be of any use if the DOD didn’t already have one of the most extensive collections of medical data in the world.

“This application and all Military Health System’s use of AI would not be possible if the MHS Information Platform did not exist,” said de Geus.

“Getting data to where it needs to be is the future of AI,” said Holly Joers, program executive officer for the Program Executive Office, Defense Healthcare Management Systems. “Having the right data at the right time, or the right patient, for the right provider is critically important.”

“Focusing on the architecture of what we’re building to support the data moving and make it get to the places where it really needs to be to derive the most value is key,” said Lisa Belter, chief technology officer of Joint Operational Medicine Information Systems.

“The whole point is getting that data visible, accessible, understandable, linkable, trustworthy, interoperable, and making sure it’s secure.”

Though the rise of AI tools is changing the way that health care is delivered, de Geus said, “It will never replace the human factor in health care. AI is a tool that will enable medical staff to perform their functions more effectively. A human will always have to decide how best to use the tool to improve their practice.”

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