The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Kaiser Permanente, two of the leading users of electronic health records in America, have announced a health information sharing partnership.

The VA is the largest integrated health care system in the US, serving 5.4 million veterans out of seven million eligible current and former service members.

The two healthcare systems announced this week they have begun a pilot medical data exchange program in San Diego using the Nationwide Health Information Network (NHIN). They now plan to roll it out nationally.

The pilot focuses on sharing summary records, which a patient must first agree can be shared, contain details of existing health problems, medications and allergies.

The new pilot program connects VA’s VistA (Veterans Affairs Health Information Systems and Technology Architecture) and Kaiser Permanente HealthConnect systems.

The ability to share medical data should enable far more integrated care. Using shared records clinicians from VA and Kaiser Permanente will be able to obtain a more comprehensive view of a patient’s health using electronic health record information.

Computerworld quoted Dr Robert M. Smith, chief of staff of the VA San Diego Healthcare System, as comparing the importance of the electronic health information program to the first moon landing, "much like President Kennedy’s charge, we’re going to take President Obama’s charge [to create a nationwide EHR system] and move forward quickly."

VA beneficiaries and Kaiser Permanente members in the San Diego area were the first to be offered the opportunity to sign up for the pilot, with the understanding that their information would not be shared without their consent.

The program’s next phase will add authorised data from the US Department of Defence’s health care system to this exchange in early 2010. Ultimately, the plan is make shared records available to all veterans and service members.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs and the entire administration are encouraged by the opportunities that electronic health record interoperability provides for veterans, service members and their dependents,” said Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki.

“We are proud to join in this effort with Kaiser Permanente and to achieve the benefits of health data exchange, including improved quality, patient safety, and efficiency.”

Led by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NHIN provides a technology “gateway” to support interoperability standards and a legal framework for the secure exchange of health information between treating physicians, when authorised by a patient.

Clinicians from the participating organisations can electronically, securely, and privately share authorised patient data, ensuring around-the-clock access to critical health information. This immediate electronic access supports increased accuracy, efficiency and safety. It also helps to avoid redundant care and testing.

“Instant access to critical health data can greatly improve not only the care and service for individual patients, but also reduce redundancy and waste in health care, saving precious resources for care delivery,” said John Mattison, MD, assistant medical director and chief medical information officer, Kaiser Permanente Southern California.

“Enhanced patient safety, efficiency, convenience and doctor-patient communication all can be facilitated by health care information technology, and we have developed a secure and private way to exchange the information caregivers need that we hope will become a model for interoperability in health care.”