Veterans Need Our Help More than Ever

Our veterans return from service with the expectation that they will receive the highest-quality care our nation can provide. Considering that they have sacrificed and made a substantial down payment on lifetime care for themselves and their family, the expectation is well deserved and reasonable.

But, sadly, we are seeing a greater disparity between expectation and delivery.

The situation grows increasingly dire with each passing year. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development almost 40,000 veterans are homeless. Though—according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness—that number has decreased over the past five years, former service members continue to be overrepresented in the homeless population, and 54 percent of those have a physical and/or mental disability.

Overall, around 20 percent of vets who served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from the mental health issues of major depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. Digging deeper into that, the Rand Center for Military Health Policy Research estimates that 19.5 percent of those veterans have experienced a traumatic brain injury. The tragic result of mental illness in our ranks of returning soldiers is that every day 20 veterans are dying of suicide, the Department of Veterans Affairs tells us.

Veterans share many of the common frustrations that patients experience in private healthcare systems—but in even greater concentrations. As the organization charged with providing healthcare to vets, the VA is woefully over-burdened, as became glaringly apparent in 2015 with the revelation that thousands of veterans seeking care had experienced unacceptable delays.

As in the private sector, the VA faces the pressures of increasing productivity—but with the added hurdle of ever-tightening operating budgets. These pressures have impacted communications between patient and physician—from informal conversation to an exploration of a patient’s perceived experience of illness. The result is that many patients leave a medical office with more questions or concerns than when they arrived.

In efforts to address many of these issues, the VA’s new director, Dr. David Shulkin, has piloted several initiatives, from making wait times and quality information about every VA hospital and clinic publicly available to offering free mental health care to vets who haven’t had access to VA care because of dishonorable discharges.

These are wise and good moves to begin to provide our veterans with the services and care they need and deserve. However, with more than 350,000 employees at 1,700 facilities, there are still a great deal of challenges that must be met in order to reach optimal performance.

One improvement that would majorly impact the level of care that the VA offers servicemen and women is implementing a central platform for communication that can report their needs and status in real time. The means exists in today’s technology, which can track, report and dashboard patients’ reported needs and outcomes as they occur (e.g., self-harm/suicide, homelessness, domestic abuse, substance abuse and medical issues). Technology makes the healthcare professional aware of veteran needs and their status as well as how healthcare providers are performing in real time—and it can speed up prescription services, facilitate access to care, give more timely clinical evaluation to caregivers, expose gaps in outcomes related to at-risk populations, alert the system of regulation and compliance issues, and detect fraud and can provide an environment to use data for a reduction in medical malpractice claims. An equally important benefit of using secure interactive technology is that it builds trust between the veteran and the practitioner. In-the-field pilots have shown this process establishes a strong bond with veterans, who appreciate being made a partner with their doctor, and it reinforces confidence in the entire organization.

Additionally, the data collected through these exchanges can be synthesized and analyzed to identify broad trends in patient comprehension and clinical outcomes. This approach is meant to facilitate transformation and the ability to think differently on both sides of the healthcare equation while monitoring delivery metrics up and down the chain of service.

Under Dr. Shulkin’s leadership, let’s hope to see real changes in the way the VA approaches its mandate to provide our military personnel with the level of service and care they need and deserve. One promising way to achieve this would be to adopt transformational technologies and embrace those companies as partners in creating sustainable positive change in meeting the vital mission with which it has been entrusted.

Mike Manning is the founder and CEO of CarePartners Plus, a data and communication company empowering all 22,000,000 veterans with a voice. Mike served in Army Special Forces from 1978 – 1989.