by Thomas Wailgum

IT at the Department of Defense: Adding Insult to Injury

Apr 05, 20073 mins
Data Center

U.S. veterans of the Iraq War continue to struggle with Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

As the initial furor over mold and mice at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center subsides, the hard work begins—or, more accurately, continues. The challenge now for the Department of Defense’s newly installed top brass is to mend long-standing disconnects in medical and administration systems, and to tame thick bureaucracy and paperwork.

The Washington Post‘s investigation into Walter Reed raised the public’s awareness about archaic Army management processes. However, Government Accountability Office reports from two years ago and congressional hearings as far back as 2004 illustrate a pattern of IT failures—and no realistic strategy to fix them.

At a February 2005 hearing examining Army administrative processes, Rep. Tom Davis (D-Va.) said that the Army “lacks an integrated medical and personnel system to provide visibility over injured or ill reserve component soldiers and, as a result, sometimes actually loses track of these soldiers and where they are in the process.” At an April 2006 hearing, Davis, backed by a GAO investigation, lamented the lack of changes in the “convoluted, disjoined and error-prone” personnel and pay systems. “They bring tragic proof that a Byzantine and stovepiped system grinds on, all but impervious to fundamental change,” Davis said.

The siloed systems have created medical records difficulties and financial crises for active duty soldiers and veterans.

The DoD has promised that it will merge the data in its pay, personnel and medical systems with the long-awaited Defense Integrated Military Human Resource System, or DIMHRS, in development now for 10 years. DIMHRS will be ready by December 2008, DoD officials say. Until then, wounded soldiers must rely on the DoD’s multitude of systems.

Some outsiders say radical IT change is needed.

Drew Miller, a defense consultant who previously worked on the DoD’s system modernization efforts, says that the DoD needs to run its IT systems as top multinational corporations dowith one common IT backbone that forces operating companies to use the same software for core functions (such as financials and key business systems). He says the IT problems at Walter Reed are typical of the overall problems within the DoDdue to the approximately 4,000 business IT systems it maintains. “DoD isn’t just failing in tracking patients and personnel records, they cannot keep track of supplies, and the DoD cannot audit its financial systems because of their long-standing business IT disaster,” Miller says via e-mail from Iraq. “Until they ruthlessly enforce IT standardization across the department, disasters like Walter Reed and many others that regularly occur will continue,” Miller says.

The DoD has sought help from the private sector. Kevin Pang, CEO of KYOS Systems, says he met with DoD officials in 2006 regarding a joint project with the Department of Veterans Affairs to digitize medical records and make them securely shareable and searchable between Walter Reed and the Washington VA, since the facilities co-treat outpatient veterans. Today records come in many formats (paper, PDFs, databases), which makes cataloging care tough. Pang awaits a verdict on the project.