The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is turning to emerging technologies like digital manufacturing to deliver better and faster healthcare to veterans, according to Dr. Beth Ripley, acting chief officer of the VA’s Office of Healthcare Innovation and Learning.

At an FCW event on April 27, Dr. Ripley explained how the VA serves over nine million veterans across 50 states and territories, and how technology is helping the agency to overcome the challenges of location and time through a diverse network.

“What we want within the VA is for a veteran to be able to walk into any location at any time and have access to the best and soonest care,” Dr. Ripley said. “And technology allows us to do that in a way that we never could when we were fully reliant on brick and mortar.”

“We believe technology, instead of pushing us further away from patients, can actually improve and enhance our connections with patients and their experiences, as well as the caregiver experience,” she added.

One way the VA is leveraging technology to provide the best care to veterans is through digital manufacturing, such as 3D printing. Dr. Ripley said this technology allows the VA to put patients in touch with care – with the soonest available caregivers – regardless of their location.

“Imagine you are a patient in Texas and you walk into a VA hospital and you need a hand brace, and you want that hand brace to be made by the very best clinician in VA. Using digital manufacturing, we’re able to consult the best caregiver – regardless of where they are in the system – and then digitally manufacture, using 3D printing and other advanced manufacturing technologies, the perfect hand brace for that veteran and then deliver it back,” she explained.

Another way this technology could open door for the VA is to help the agency prepare for health emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Ripley recalled how during the pandemic, VA facilities saw “significant supply chain disruptions” – along with other hospitals around the country – which made it difficult to receive goods it needed such as face masks, face shields, nasal swabs, and other devices.

“VA – along with many others, including multiple industry partners, government partners, etc. – is interested in the concept of digital stockpiling, or being able to, in addition to stockpiling physical goods, have digital blueprints of devices that we can make on the fly if needed in a digital repository that can be accessed anytime, anywhere,” she said.

For example, Dr. Ripley said by stockpiling a nylon powder used in 3D printing, the VA could “make anything from a face mask, face shields, nasal swabs, aids for intubation, as well as your general day-to-day medical devices.”

“VA is interested in partnering with anyone and everyone who has a passion and interest in understanding how we can use digital healthcare solutions to deliver true value to patients,” Dr. Ripley said.

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Grace Dille
Grace Dille
Grace Dille is a MeriTalk Senior Technology Reporter covering the intersection of government and technology.