By Bob Brewin
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency plans to hold a conference on Friday to inform industry about a project that would create virtual worlds, social media sites and telehealth services to help treat troops suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries -- even though Congress killed funding for it earlier this year.
DARPA officials said it will develop its ambitious Healing Heroes project using guidance by a board of advisers drawn from the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments, particularly the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury.
In April, Army Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, director of the center, described the project as a new way for troops suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, their families and communities to communicate and connect in a way that "transcends time and space." She briefly mentioned the project at a panel discussion on health IT presented by Government Executive.
DARPA said it wants to use virtual worlds with avatars and other advanced online applications to educate veterans and their families on how to manage PTSD, TBI, and related issues such as substance abuse, suicidal thoughts and readjustment to everyday life after serving in combat.
Healing Heroes also plans to create a social networking environment, including a website and applications, that will create instant support groups and online communities moderated by medical experts who will help patients care for themselves and improve their access to services, DARPA said.
The agency also wants to pioneer innovative approaches to telehealth using secure telecommunications such as secure text, voice, virtual reality and videoconferencing that would connect troops with medical experts and support groups in their community in real time.
In addition, the project will tap textual information processing and analysis tools that medical and mental health professionals could use to identify individual and group trends for PTSD and TBI. They then could alert clinicians about soldiers who might have emerging psychological health problems, DARPA said.
But the House and Senate said DARPA is unqualified to run the program, which will require the use of medical information covered by the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
"DARPA does not have adequate policy expertise to translate these [HIPPA] legal strictures into technical systems," according to the House Armed Services Committee report that accompanied the fiscal 2011 Defense authorization bill said.
"While the committee supports the goals of this program, it is not confident that DARPA should lead this type of activity, or that it should pursue technical solutions using real patient data without a well-defined memorandum of agreement with a partner that has deeper experience with HIPAA and Privacy Act information," the report noted.
In its fiscal Defense authorization bill report, the Senate Armed Services Committee said it believed the Healing Heroes project, "if truly deemed necessary, should be undertaken by either a service or an appropriate agency that has the necessary policy and legal expertise to ensure personal privacy and the confidentiality of health data on such a site."
Both the House and Senate committees zeroed out the $9 million budget request for the project.
Neither DARPA nor the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury answered a query on plans for the Healing Heroes project if the authorization bill passes and eliminates funding