Guest Column | November 11, 2019

Veterans' Healthcare Is Mission Critical; Health Technology Can Help

By Maura Cash, HST Pathways

Veteran Treatment Policy

Every year on November 11, the United States celebrates Veterans Day, the national holiday that honors U.S. military veterans for their service. The holiday is an opportunity for all Americans to consider the sacrifices that veterans of the U.S. Armed Services have made and remember to thank and honor those that served, both in war and in peacetime.

Many veterans also face a secondary sacrifice: unique healthcare challenges in the long- and short-term occurring upon their return to the civilian population. Soldiers from active duty may have residual disabilities, injuries, and/or pain. Those embedded in toxic environments may suffer from additional illnesses caused by exposure. Statistically, veterans also experience higher rates of mental health disorders, substance use disorders, post-traumatic stress, and traumatic brain injury compared to the civilian population.

Compounding the issue, these injured veterans can face significant challenges in accessing timely healthcare services. Just a few years ago, news reports detailed the desperate circumstances of thousands of veterans who were forced to wait months for medical appointments through the Department of Veterans Affairs Veterans Administration (VA) health facilities, with some reportedly dying while waiting. And despite efforts by policymakers and military advocates, delays and access challenges continue to exist.

Our veterans should never receive substandard medical care, nor experience delays in receiving that care. A newly implemented approach to community care for veterans and greater utilization of emerging technologies will help.

Last year, Congress passed the VA MISSION Act, designed to provide veterans greater access to healthcare in VA facilities and the community, expand benefits for caregivers, and improve the VA's ability to recruit and retain the best medical providers. One of the key elements is providing veterans with greater choice over where they can access their medical care, including from a provider in their community.

Decades ago, in alignment with the overall national movement toward outpatient healthcare with maximum cost-efficiency, the VA began moving away from traditional Hospital Outpatient Departments (HOPDs) toward ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs). Today, tens of thousands of veterans use ASCs for high-quality surgical and preventive care, including orthopedic, endoscopic, and pain management services, among other important procedures.

With the VA MISSION Act removing many of the remaining administrative hurdles to care and the aging veteran population increasingly using outpatient surgical services, ASCs must in turn ensure they can meet that demand with availability of services, the highest level of quality care, and technological efficiency. For example, ensuring software systems are compatible with VA software systems can help ensure that health records are a complete reflection of all care they have received.

Health information technology (HIT) can play a role in helping providers meet the unique needs of veterans. A recent study in peer-reviewed journal Family Practice noted that despite a wide body of evidence demonstrating military-related health issues, many service members are still not being asked about veteran status. A flag in the electronic health record (EHR) that identifies veteran status and triggers clinical decision support questions would help providers screen for and identify conditions that are more prevalent in the veteran population, including, but not limited to, mental health and substance use disorder related issues.

The VA is also taking an active role in using HIT to bring health record access directly to veterans’ fingertips. Earlier this year, the VA partnered with Apple to provide access to the more than nine million veterans who receive care through the VA. Veterans who use the app will be able to view aggregated medical information from participating providers on their iPhone. On its website, the VA identifies a variety of additional health-related mobile apps and resources to improve veterans’ health and wellness on issues such as psychological wellness, sleep aid and insomnia, parenting help, mindfulness, and questions about VA benefits. App-based data often works with software that coordinates information exchanges between the VA, ASCs, and hospitals.

While federal policymakers work on improving access to care and technological advancements to help veterans, private companies including ASCs, can play a role in honoring their service. For example, through our company’s work with Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that facilitates access to programs and services for veterans’ mental, physical, and economic needs, we became more aware of the need for the business community as a whole to take measures to hire more veterans after they return to civilian life. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes program is designed to help veterans, service members transitioning from active duty, and military spouses find meaningful employment opportunities. This initiative links the business community and members of the military through job fairs and online career tools with the goal of supporting the employment of half a million individuals.

Companies that hire veterans quickly realize their return on investment: individuals with a military background are disciplined, have highly reasoned judgment and are well-positioned to succeed — even in high-stress, demanding work environments. As Americans celebrate this Veterans Day, intentional action on veterans’ healthcare and facilitating employment opportunities will serve as proof that we care for the men and women who defended our country — a fitting tribute to America’s heroes.

About The Author

Maura Cash, RN, BSN, CASC, is Director of Clinical Services for HST Pathways, a top-ranked software solutions company for the ambulatory surgery center (ASC) industry.