Technology is radically improving care for veterans

With its three-pillar approach to modernization, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is transforming its technology systems to create foundational change, says its Chief Modernization Officer.
By Surafeal Asgedom
03:27 PM

How do you play pool when one hand is paralyzed? How do frontline military doctors successfully consult with surgeons back home when time is of the essence? How do medical centers capture and assess patient feedback, and implement improvements promptly and effectively?

VA is answering these questions and dozens more by transforming its technology systems to create foundational change. Part of its three-pillar approach to modernization, VA is leveraging innovative technologies, both in-house and commercial off-the-shelf solutions, to provide veterans with personalized medical care that addresses their individual needs, and the results for veterans and their families are amazing.

Improving care through technology

Advances in technology affect every aspect of our lives, from how we interact with one another to the products we rely upon. Some of the most important technological developments take place in the field of medicine, radically transforming the quality of care patients receive now and in the future.

Using cutting-edge tools such as 3D-printing and virtual and augmented reality, clinicians are able to treat patients in ways that were unimaginable in previous decades. The StrongMind initiative, for example, leverages VR gaming to treat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, providing a safe and supportive environment for processing trauma and opening up about their experiences. Breakthroughs in AR technology are also now enabling doctors in the U.S. to virtually “step into” field hospitals and assist physicians, in real-time, when treating wounded service members. This augments critical skills and expertise, without losing crucial time.

Some of the biggest breakthroughs in healthcare delivery, though, have come in the field of 3D printing. This burgeoning technology is improving pre-surgery planning, tailoring custom protheses, designing tools for those with disabilities, even building organs and bones. By testing and implementing emerging technologies, VA is ensuring that veterans receive the care they deserve.

Modernization is a "learning journey" that requires review and course corrections along the way. Ensuring our improvements are effectively addressing veterans’ needs requires information from the end users themselves. To this end, VA developed Veterans Signals (VSignals), a digital platform to collect feedback from veterans, eligible dependents, caregivers, and survivors. Using artificial intelligence, VSignals automatically analyzes the feedback to detect sentiment, determine which topics veterans are mentioning, and predict what might be emerging before they intensify into long-term concerns. As of mid-2019, VSignals has received over 3 million responses, which in turn have guided process improvements throughout VA.

Empowering future innovation

Innovation doesn’t happen in a bubble. Through a growing number of programs, initiatives, and strategic partnerships, VA is facilitating breakthroughs in healthcare delivery and services, improving our ability to serve the veteran population now and in the future.

In today’s digital world, data analytics and machine learning are some of the biggest drivers of innovation, especially within the healthcare industry. VA is developing strategic partnerships with industry leaders to help guide research around future applications of AI. Already, these partnerships are yielding tangible benefits for veterans, such as developing an AI-driven forecasting system that can predict a potential life-threatening kidney condition up to two days before it happens. Predictive modeling through AI is also enabling VA to use medical data to identify veterans at high risk for suicide, and proactively address the personal needs of those veterans. Leading the development of AI will allow VA to leverage cutting-edge AI technologies to provide veterans with the best possible care.

Through advanced data analytics, VA is redefining the possibilities for personalized medicine with its precision oncology programs. By linking patients to the most effective cancer treatments available, veterans receive care that is specific to their particular needs. A recent study showed that clinical implementation of precision oncology is feasible across the across the VA health system, even for rural veterans. This is especially significant, because rural areas in the US, where more veterans tend to live, have higher mortality rates from cancer than urban areas.

VA is leading the healthcare industry in other ways as well by creating one of the nation’s first 5G-enabled hospitals.Technology previously seen only in science fiction can now show surgeons 3D-imaging of the inside of patients before they start operating, displayed alongside a full read-out of their electronic health record data. Surgeons across the country are able to virtually enter the room to consult on surgeries through the pairing of 5G with AR capabilities. By becoming one of the world’s first healthcare systems to embrace 5G technology, VA is helping to shape the future of the industry, both nationally and globally.

VA modernization as transformation engine

VA is currently in the midst of an historic evolution designed to evolve the Department into a high-performing organization. VA is transforming systems to create foundational change – simplifying operations to improve customer service – and empowering people to embrace change. Modernization initiatives touch every part of the way VA does business. Together, we are delivering a stronger future that better serves our veteran population and their families. Find out more about VA Modernization at

Surafeal Asgedom is chief modernization officer at the U.S. Department for Veterans Affairs.

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