Hasta la VistA, Baby!


UPDATE

This article implies that VA dropping VistA would be good for VistA. This makes the assumption that the extra-governmental VistA community and private vendors (like MedSphere and DSS) would step in to fill the void left by VA’s departure from VistA development. If, instead, this community continues to expect salvation from within the VA bureaucracy, VistA will die.

Also, please remember that I do not in any way fault individual VA developers for the bumbling mismanagement of the product.

It brings me no joy to express the grim reality, but I believe that at least someone needs to speak the difficult truth: politicians have never been friendly to VistA, government cannot effectively manage software projects, and the only bright path forward for VistA is to get it out of the hands of corrupt government cronies like Shulkin.


I’m not going to wring my hands today.

Instead, I’d like to extend my sincerest good wishes to Secretary Shulkin and his team as they embark upon what is sure to be a long and difficult transition to the Cerner EHR. I really do hope it works out for them.

I’m also hardly able to contain my excitement for what this could mean for the future of VistA. Provided the VA stays the course with this plan, its future has never been brighter.

The VA has been trying to get out of software development for years, and has had VistA limping along on life support the whole time. Outside, private-sector vendors have been understandably hesitant to make major changes to the VistA codebase, because they haven’t wanted to break compatibility with the VA’s patch stream. But now, there’s a chance that the patch stream will dry up, along with the stream of bad code, infected with the virus of Cache ObjectScript, and the VA’s marked indifference towards fixing structural problems with core modules like Kernel and FileMan. The VA always hated VistA, and they were atrociously incompetent custodians of it, from the moment it emerged from the rather offensively-named “underground railroad”. They suck at software development, so they should get out of that business and let the open source community take the reins.

This is not to say that there weren’t or aren’t good programmers at the VA: far from it, but VA’s bumbling, incompetent, top-heavy management bureaucracy forever hobbled their best programmers’ best intentions. And let’s be real: had Secretary Shulkin announced that VA was keeping VistA, it would be status quo, business-as-usual. VistA would still be VA’s redheaded stepchild, and the bitrot already plaguing it would get even worse. There was never the tiniest chance that the VA would wake up and start managing VistA well, much less innovating with it. And even if this Cerner migration fails (which is not at all unlikely), there will never be such a chance. Its successes stem entirely from its origins as an unauthorized, underground skunkworks project by those great VistA pioneers who courageously thumbed their noses at bureaucratic stupidity. VistA only ever succeeded in spite of the VA; not because of it.

But, what about patient care? Won’t it get worse as a result of dropping such a highly-rated EHR?

Worse than what? VA sucks at that too, and always has. Long waiting lists, poor quality of care, bad outcomes, scheduling fraud, skyrocketing veteran suicides: none of this is related in any way to VAs technology, for better or worse. It’s just that pouring money into IT changes is a quick way for a bureaucrat with a maximal career span far too short to affect any real change to appear that they’re doing something. When IT projects fail, they can dump it in their successors’ laps, or blame the contractor, and go upon their merry way visiting fraud, waste, and abuse upon the taxpayer, while those who committed to making the ultimate sacrifice in service of king and country are left wondering why it still takes them months just to be seen.

So I sincerely do wish the VA the best of luck in its witless endeavor, and hope that they succeed, by whatever comical measure of success their bumbling allows. Hopefully, this will open the door for the open-source community to take the awesomeness that is VistA and bring it forward into a brighter and happier future.

Feel free to join me. Virtual popcorn and soda is free.

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