I'd like to start by saying that I have huge respect for the VA (of course). The work they do is deeply honorable, incredibly challenging, and skillful. Especially as we approach our Independence Day, I believe that the VA is a key part in protecting our nation.
That said, they do face the challenges of being a large, underfunded government agency. And the scandals that have roiled the institution over the past few years reflect the challenges that so many organizations face, even if (slightly) less bulky and (a little) less underfunded. And the VA potentially reflects the same solutions that we all need to consider if we're to advance -- it's just starker in their case.
Exhibit 1: a year after the Department of Veterans Affairs was scandalized by long wait times (as well as falsifying wait times), the number of veterans on waiting lists of one month or more is now 50 percent higher than last year. Not for lack of trying, either. The VA has expanded care. Its doctors and nurses have handled 2.7 million more appointments, while authorizing 900,000 additional patients to see outside physicians. Physician workloads increased by 18-21% in most regions. And yet the department’s deputy secretary, Sloan D. Gibson said, "if we don’t do something different we’re going to be $2.7 billion short.”
Exhibit 2: the VA has developed an in-house system to allow caregivers to access their patients' records across the agency's facilities. (Something you would think would be a nonnegotiable for anyone providing medical care.) The VA is currently looking for an EHR for the system (an $11 billion bid) but it seems that most of the options won't be interoperable across the VA system. "I feel like we're in a thicket here and we can't get out," Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said. "We're about to spend $11 billion on a system that the VA's system is not interoperable with? Please tell me that I'm absolutely wrong."
The VA's challenges of interoperability, collaboration, and capacity are challenges we all have. And missteps may be impossible for them to avoid -- but that we probably can.
These are two key learnings from the VA to consider in the effort to find sustainable solutions:
- You can't just make physicians work harder -- you have to find a way for the organization to work smarter.
The fact that physicians output is up by around 20% over last year -- in an organization with infamously overworked providers -- is not a sustainable situation. As we saw last week, this kind of "optimization" is a recipe for burnout -- which is ultimately bad for the organization. Other initiatives, like this one to use telemedicine to decrease workloads -- are going to be a better path forward, even if they have less immediate rewards.
- Enable healthcare collaboration, even if it is outside of your EMR or EHR.
Interoperability can be very challenging, especially with the existing EMR and EHR options. That said, if medical providers aren't able to share information and collaborate with each other, results and metrics will suffer. We've found that it is often better for an organization to use a collaboration platform (iClickCare is a telemedicine based one) to bridge the gap and collaborate even as EMRs and EHRs catch up with interoperability concerns.
We can root for the VA even as we learn from their mistakes. And if we're going to improve medicine in this country, we must do both.
Hybrid store-and-forward telemedicine is a key solution for collaboration in organizaitons with limited resources. Learn more with our free guide: