Leaders at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) are using technology to meet their mission outcomes of bettering healthcare across the nation for those who served in the military, as well as leveraging tools to help clinicians provide the best care possible for veterans.

“Our mission, our purpose, our drive, is to help create the best, most advanced healthcare solutions possible for our veterans,” Thomas Osborne, director of VA’s National Center for Collaborative Healthcare Innovation, said during the DigitalVA Expo this week in Palo Alto, Calif.

Osborne said he is most excited about using technology to solve the Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) “gnarly” problems.

“The most appealing and exciting thing about technology is it’s scalable,” Osborne said. “We can solve so many problems, but with that has a huge responsibility to get it right because the stakes are high in healthcare.”

Osborne said he is most excited about his team’s ability to transform healthcare.

“That’s really our opportunity, but it’s more than that: it’s a responsibility,” Osborne said. “It’s a responsibility for our veterans because they deserve it, and because of everything that we can do because of them. But it’s also because what we do at VA, the largest integrated health care system in the United States. What we do, what we solve here, with the complexity and the tools that we have, that has the potential for far reaching positive impact – not just for our specific mission, which we’re focused on, but for the rest of the country and perhaps the world.”

VA’s Deputy Chief Technology Officer (CTO) for Health Delivery, Lauren Alexanderson, said her team has spent time in-person at the VHA medical facilities to understand how veterans are interacting with digital tools.

She said one of the main things they observed is that the conversation has “increasingly moved online.”

“We’re really excited about bringing the patient portal, VA’s beloved patient portal, into VA.gov – making it a lot easier to blur the lines between the benefits experience, the education experience, the claims experience, and the healthcare experience,” Alexanderson said. “Veterans can participate in that conversation with their providers from where they are, from their home, from their local Walmart.”

Alexanderson also said that her team observed burnout among clinicians at the VHA medical clinics, so they delivered the “simplest technology” – like SMS messaging to schedule appointments – to make it as easy as possible for doctors to deliver care.

“One of the things that we’re working on is a clinical decision support platform that will work in our VISTA and our Cerner EHRs to try to enable the doctors to have the data that they need in their fingertips at the right time to help them facilitate making those decisions,” Alexanderson said.

Carrie Lee, the VA’s deputy chief information officer (CIO) for product engineering service, said during the DigitalVA Expo that her team’s “top clinical priority” is modernizing the veteran crisis line by “using best of breed commercial tools to really make that experience much better for both the veteran, and the clinician, and the call center workers.”

“It’s going to have a huge impact in the fact that it’s going to be more reliable, the workflows are going to be easy to do, we’re going to have integrated with other services that we do,” Lee said. “Being able to impact veteran suicide is what one of the things that gets me up in the morning and brings me to work.”

Lee said that another way her team at the VA is helping impact veteran suicide is through the REACH program. They created a use case and model where caregivers can look for veteran behaviors that indicate they’re at risk – which includes missing appointments or not refilling their prescriptions, Lee explained.

“When we start seeing these patterns, we can notify the clinicians and have them actually reach out to the veteran, and it has increased people making their appointments 30 percent and has decreased suicide rates five percent,” Lee said. “So, these are really touching, driving positive veteran outcomes.”

“What gets me going every day is that I can see the outcomes of the work I do and how they affect people,” Lee said. “They affect our veterans – they make life better for them. They make life better for those of us who work at VA and served the veterans.”

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Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan
Cate Burgan is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.