The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is harnessing new technology that accelerates the time it takes clinicians to screen and diagnose veterans’ health problems, agency officials said on Jan. 18 at the AFCEA Bethesda Health IT Summit.

One clinician explained how the agency is turning to tools such as new digital platforms, machine learning, and AI to provide improved, timely care to veterans.

Dr. Ryan Vega, the chief officer for the Office of Healthcare Innovation and Learning as part of the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Discovery, Education, and Affiliate Networks Office, said technology has played a critical role in recent PACT Act efforts. The PACT Act is a new law that expands VA health care and benefits for veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances.

The VA was able to build an efficient digital platform for the new law that allows the agency to screen veterans at scale, Dr. Vega explained. Now, the VA can easily reach out to veterans with a simple text message to let them know if they may have been exposed and when to come in for screening.

“The faster we can screen, the more people we can screen, the better we’re going to be at diagnosing and then eventually the better we’ll be at treating,” Dr. Vega said. “So, I think that digital infrastructure that was built is so important, and that’s going to be important, not just for this, but for the next and the next and the next.”

Another way the VA is utilizing tech to provide accelerated treatment to veterans is by using AI capabilities for medical imaging.

“[There’s] a ton of evidence that if you can feed your millions of images – chest X-rays or CT scans – it can really get better at augmenting radiologists’ ability to detect changes in pixelation,” Dr. Vega said.

While the AI is not as smart as a radiologist – at least right now – the clinician explained “what it can detect is slight changes or variations in pixels that the human eye can’t see.”

“Now, we use these tools to improve and enhance our ability to diagnose, and then in the future, that precision component will give us the ability to better treat,” he said. “So, I think that’s really where I see a lot of excitement and a lot of focus right now in the agency… looking at imaging data and helping us accelerate our ability to diagnose and hopefully predict.”

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Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is MeriTalk's Assistant Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.