IT Forefront

3 things to consider before purchasing a vendor-neutral archive

by Andrew Rebhan

Vendor-neutral archives (VNAs) are a popular option for health care organizations looking to bolster their image management capabilities and IT flexibility. VNAs provide long-term storage and disaster recovery of image data irrespective of the departmental picture archiving and communication system (PACS) it came from. Historically, PACS were built on proprietary technology that made it difficult to share images across departments for more coordinated care, consolidate IT during business mergers, and transfer data during IT replacement cycles.

The versatility of VNAs as central image repositories for disparate PACS has made them a cornerstone of many health care organizations' enterprise imaging strategy. VNAs can allow users to leverage standards-based workflows while also improving image retrieval and display through the electronic health record. Due to the perceived benefits of a VNA, there has been a rise in the number of IT vendors entering the market. PACS have been around much longer than VNAs, and although there is still room for growth in the PACS market, many PACS vendors have introduced their own VNAs to stay relevant.

Unfortunately, this proliferation of VNA vendors makes the buying process difficult for health care providers. When moving beyond PACS to adopt a VNA, you will need to ensure your IT vendor's product aligns with your long-term business goals. Here are three considerations to keep in mind during the purchasing process:

If your PACS vendor already offers a VNA, start there

Due to the diversity of VNA offerings, buyers may have difficulty comprehending what a "true" VNA is. Vendors labeling themselves as "independent" feel they represent true neutrality, claiming their solutions do not keep patient images or other related data locked into proprietary applications, offering greater interoperability among departments. On the other hand, traditional PACS vendors feel that this distinction is becoming increasingly irrelevant as they introduce their own VNA products and essentially brush off the accusation that their VNAs are just rebranded PACS solutions.

Despite the lively debate, vendor acquisitions and partnerships are starting to blur the lines between these two groups. Many legacy PACS players have created robust VNA solutions, and for some health care providers it will make sense to start their VNA purchasing process by determining if their existing PACS vendors have a VNA worth implementing.

Regardless of labels, focus on the features you need

VNA vendors can argue with each other about their classification, but the customer is going to make a decision based on what the solution can actually do.

Given the rapid growth of the VNA market, buyers are now exposed to differing levels of vendor competence and product maturity. Apart from fundamental features of a VNA, such as true application neutrality, lifecycle management, and data accessibility, a standard industry checklist for VNA maturity does not currently exist. Nevertheless, there are a number of features that can help differentiate more mature VNA systems from others, such as advanced analytics, integrated migration tools, and cross-enterprise document sharing (XDS) capabilities.

There is more to enterprise imaging than just a VNA

With the ongoing shift toward value-based care, a variety of technologies will need to be bridged to effectively centralize patient information management, including VNAs, image exchange tools, HIEs, enterprise viewers, workflow solutions, and enterprise content management (ECM) platforms.

Make sure that your organization is starting to develop a broader IT strategy that encompasses all forms of structured and unstructured content (clinical, financial, and operational), regardless of location or format, for a comprehensive patient record.

Going forward

Acquiring and implementing a VNA will take time, but performing due diligence during the procurement process will prevent migration and data access problems down the line. Before meeting with IT vendors, ensure that your organization is setting its sights beyond the single function of image storage toward more comprehensive enterprise clinical content management, while also understanding your needs in terms of the scope and scale of implementation (multi-department vs. multi-site).

Learn more about imaging's role in health system success

Where should health care leaders be investing in imaging, and how can they make the best use of the imaging team? Join us on Sept. 13 at 1 p.m. ET for the "5 Things CEOs Need to Know About Imaging" webconference to find out.

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