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Making IT Boring Again: The Quiet Success of DHA's Global Network

Pat Flanders presenting at HIMSS 2021 Pat Flanders, DHA’s chief information officer and deputy assistant director for information operations, makes remarks during a presentation entitled, “Making IT Boring Again – Priorities, Progress, and Pandemics,” at the Health Information and Management Systems Society’s annual conference in Las Vegas, August 11 (Jacob Moore, MHS Communications)

What does it mean to be boring?

It’s been several years since the Defense Health Agency consolidated the Military Health System’s network and information technology operations into a single, unified network infrastructure that can track health care operations around the world.

That transition occurred with such little fanfare that it might seem boring – but that’s just fine with the IT professionals at DHA, who say “boring” translates into finding a solution that is both reliable and stands the test of time.

With IT assets at approximately 600 military hospitals and clinics throughout the United States and around the world, “We’re global,” said Pat Flanders, the DHA’s chief information officer and deputy assistant director for information operations.

“When you think about the context of, say, vaccine distribution and tracking, we’re the only entity that’s truly doing that globally,” he said.

His remarks came as part of a presentation entitled, “Making IT Boring Again – Priorities, Progress, and Pandemics,” at the Health Information and Management Systems Society’s annual conference in Las Vegas, where he presented with Tom Hines, his senior advisor and director of engineering and technology transformation for the DHA.

Flanders and Hines spoke to a crowd of more than 1,000 people, mostly medical and IT professionals, about cybersecurity within the DHA, and integrating multiple service branch-centric networks, as well as elements from the Defense Information Systems Agency, into a single network infrastructure.

A global enterprise requires a global solution, they explained.

The pair discussed contracts, technical issues, products currently in use, and the difficulty in dealing with protected health information, and the processes currently in place for introducing new IT products into the DHA pipeline, from introduction to eventual use.

The effort to consolidate the service branches’ IT systems into a single network was initially seen as a major challenge. Yet the standardization achieved during the past several years has ultimately led to better care for patients, ease-of-use for providers, fewer headaches for network administrators and lower costs for the system at large.

A single network and standardized processes “make it better for the patients, better for the taxpayers, and certainly better when it comes to cybersecurity,” said Flanders.

While innovation is important, said Hines, being “boring” translates into reliability and certain products and systems that have stood the test of time.

“IT should be invisible. You shouldn’t even know it’s there,” Hines said. “It should just deliver capability. That’s what we have to strive for.”

The DHA adapted a unique mix of hardware and software to meet its needs. Security elements alone include a mix of firewalls, network access control, data monitoring and collection, and network security.

Hines ran through an in-depth scenario where a device could come onto the network, be identified, validated, be compliance checked for security, authorized and granted or denied access. In the event the device is acting “abnormally,” it could be isolated, scanned, remediated and re-authorized in a matter of minutes. All of this is, he said, has been automated since the current network’s implementation.

Hines said DHA’s IT priorities now include:

  • Continuous monitoring and beginning the migration to “continuous authorization”

  • Pushing hard on the continued standardization of software and tools

  • Continued decommissioning of legacy systems and their associated hardware and software platforms

  • Looking hard at optimization of storage platforms and an overall reduction in the footprint and costs

  • Adding new metrics and measurements of performance to drive toward desired outcomes

  • Introducing increased automation into maintenance and configuration tasks to reduce operating costs

“We take data from everywhere to figure out what’s going on in the enterprise because it’s not simple,” said Hines.

Only when you can monitor everything, everywhere, he said, are you able to figure out what’s best for IT throughout the DHA.

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