5 Ways VA Employees Have Changed Veterans’ Lives

5 Ways VA Employees Have Changed Veterans’ Lives

Ask most of our employees why they work at VA. Their top reason is often the same: they want to improve the lives of Veterans.

When you work at VA, there are so many ways that you can make a difference. Whether it’s working on cutting edge research that improves their treatment options, proposing a simple process improvement to make access to care easier, or just lending a sympathetic ear.

VA encourages a culture of innovation. VA gives its employees the chance to lead the way and change lives at the only nationwide health care system in the U.S. Here are five of the ways they’ve helped make an impact for Veterans:

1. Curing more than 100,000 Veterans of chronic hepatitis C infection

Curing chronic hepatitis C infection and advanced liver disease, cutting death rates by up to 50%. Hepatology pharmacist Long Do helped get us there with a simple but innovative approach that significantly increased testing and treatment rates. As a member of VA Portland’s Hepatitis Innovation Team, Do recommended including hepatitis C treatment flyers in all prescription bags at the VA Portland pharmacy. Do and his colleagues also reached out to Veterans who were either homeless, lost to follow up, or lived in remote areas.

2. Working to end diabetic limb loss. 

Through a partnership with Podimetrics, at-risk, diabetic Veterans are given mats that measure the temperature of their feet to detect diabetic foot ulcers (DFUs) up to five weeks early. Since a DFU can lead to amputation or even death for the one-in-four Veterans who suffer from diabetes, this is a game changer. In 2019, we treated 75,000 DFUs, accounting for more than 80% of non-traumatic amputations in VA. Beyond costing more than $3.2 billion that year, amputations also take an incalculable toll on the Veterans affected.

3. Bringing 3D printing to VA to improve individualized treatment. 

Model kidneys made on 3D printers help physicians prepare for surgery at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System and save doctors up to two hours per surgery. That’s two hours that patients don’t have to be under anesthesia. Occupational therapists also use the printers to manufacture specialized, same-day hand orthotics, reducing the need for Veterans to make multiple visits for fittings. These are just two ways our national 3D printing network is improving care for Veterans. Spearheading the innovative use of 3D printers, Radiologist and Chair of the VHA 3D Printing Advisory Committee Beth Ripley, M.D., Ph.D., is a finalist for a 2020 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal.

4. Connecting Veterans to care no matter where they live. 

Another effort up for a 2020 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal is our Connected Care initiative, which includes telehealth options, mobile apps and other digital health solutions. These efforts help the nearly 3 million rural Veterans enrolled in VA health care receive treatment without having to travel to a VA facility. In 2019, more than 900,000 Veterans completed nearly three million telehealth appointments. VA Video Connect sessions increased by a whopping 235%, while VA’s patient portal, My HealtheVet, surpassed five million registered users. Veterans can use My HealtheVet to send providers secure electronic messages, access medical records, check lab results and refill prescriptions.

5. Using artificial intelligence (AI) to help identify Veterans at risk of suicide or homelessness. 

The Veterans Signals (VSignals) platform does more than survey Veterans, eligible dependents, caregivers and survivors on their VA experience. It also saves lives. AI automatically analyzes free text responses and routes them to the Veterans Crisis Line and National Call Center for Homeless Veterans when Veterans leave feedback indicating they might be at risk for suicide or homelessness. As of June 2019, over 691 suicide crises and 343 homelessness crises had been sent to VA experts who provided help to Veterans in need. The effort won a FedHealthIT Innovation Awards in 2019.

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How the VA Encourages Providers to Care for Their Own Mental Health

How the VA Encourages Providers to Care for Their Own Mental Health

It’s been a tough year, particularly for those on the frontlines of health care. At VA, we encourage you to make your mental health a priority, just as we do for the Veterans in our care.

Federal workplaces like VA have always fully supported employees in caring for their mental wellness, and that has taken on greater importance during these challenging times.

“There are things we did to cope in the past. Remember those things and do [them]. Be hopeful. We’re going to get through this,” said Dr. Ken Jones, chief of psychology service at the Southeast Veterans Health Care System.

Providers in this health system are being evaluated on the Perceived Stress Scale, a widely used psychological tool for measuring the perception of stress. VA staff also can enroll in a six-session stress management course.

We also encourage employees to take advantage of wellness resources already in place, like employee exercise programs, yoga and tai chi. You can contact VA’s confidential Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to help you manage stress and anxiety, and the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program also offers generous mental health coverage and can help connect you with a counselor or psychiatrist.

You can’t care for others if you don’t care for yourself first. As the American Medical Association reminds us, it’s like an airline asking you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others in an in-flight emergency. Here are some tips to consider:

  1. Develop and use coping strategies. Make sure you take time between shifts to focus on yourself. Use coping strategies that have worked for you before to manage stress, advises the World Health Organization. Get enough rest, exercise, eat well and practice deep breathing, Dr. Jones recommended. The VHA National Center for Organization Development recommends trying to take breaks from stressful situations if you can. Headspace, a meditation and mindfulness app, is offering free subscriptions to any U.S. health care professional with a National Provider Identifier through the end of 2020. VA also offers flexible work schedules and telework when possible to allow you time to recover and recharge.
  2. Talk to someone. Find a friend, family member or colleague to confide in. Even though we can’t always be together right now, there are many virtual ways to stay in touch with loved ones. Consider phone, email, text messaging and video calls, wrote Patricia Watson, a Navy Veteran and psychologist at VA’s National Center for PTSD. If you find yourself feeling sad, hopeless or unable to sleep, talk to a professional.
  3. Take breaks from news and social media. It seems like the bad news just keeps coming in the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle. While technology helps keep us connected when we can’t physically be together — and even has allowed us to continue to provide health care from a distance — it’s also a good idea to put down your phone or computer and take a break.
  4. Remember the importance of your mission. Caring for the brave men and women who have served our nation is a noble calling, and it takes on even greater significance during challenging times. Remember that what you do makes a difference in the lives of many people and that the nation is grateful to you for your continued hard work and dedication.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 800-273-TALK (8255). You will be connected to a trained crisis worker immediately.

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We’ll make sure you feel supported as you help carry out the noble mission of caring for the nation’s Veterans.

Telehealth Ramps Up, Connects Providers and Patients

Telehealth Ramps Up, Connects Providers and Patients

There’s no doubt about it — VA will set an agency record for telehealth care in 2020.

Veterans attend about 25,000 telehealth video appointments each day, a 1,000% increase from 2019. VA already surpassed last year’s number of telehealth encounters by 7 million.

Because VA already had robust telehealth infrastructure in place — with nearly two-thirds of primary care and mental health providers having already used VA Video Connect to see patients — providers quickly ramped up telehealth capabilities to meet increased demand.

Making Care Connections

Telehealth can benefit Veterans, particularly those who find it difficult to travel or the one in four who live in rural areas far from care centers.

“VA is committed to offering Veterans the health care they deserve, whenever and wherever they need it,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in November 2019.

Thanks to telehealth, VA providers have been able to make a difference in the lives of patients like Daryll Martin, a Veteran with high blood pressure who is unable to drive or use public transportation due to a history of narcolepsy.

Telehealth care coordinator Jasmine Pace monitored Martin’s blood pressure remotely. She then sent nurses to his home to evaluate him and help sort his medications.

“They went through every single one of his pills and as soon as he started to take his medicines his numbers came down immediately,” Pace said.

“As far as I’m concerned, telehealth saved my life,” Martin said. “Telehealth stepped up. I’m very fortunate, and very grateful for them.”

Veteran patients have been relieved to be able to maintain continuity of care and most have not had trouble adjusting to the new technology, according to Kimberly Braswell, a nurse practitioner in the cardiology unit at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida. Her oldest patient using telehealth is 99 years old.

“You can see the Veterans’ relief and happiness,” she said. “They can connect to their providers and have their issues addressed without interrupting their care. It’s one thing to talk over the phone, but making that face-to-face connection and being able to see their provider on video increases Veterans’ level of confidence with their care.”

Be an Innovator

VA is always looking for ways to improve care for the nation’s Veterans, whether it’s expanding telehealth, researching a new treatment or just streamlining a process. VA encourages employees to be key players in a culture of innovation.

In addition to a supportive work environment and a rewarding mission of serving heroes, employees enjoy competitive pay and unbeatable benefits. These include 36-49 days of paid time off per year. There’s also access to a range of premium-paid health insurance plans and robust retirement plans.

Other perks that come with choosing a VA career include:

  • Flexible work schedules and shifts.
  • Diversity and inclusion policies and programs.
  • Leadership development and mentoring programs.
  • Career training and enhancement opportunities.
  • A smoke/drug-free workplace.
  • On-site child care centers at select facilities and child care subsidies.

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Consider joining an organization that’s committed to high-quality care through innovation.

VA Paid Residency Helps Nurse Enter Rewarding Career

VA Paid Residency Helps Nurse Enter Rewarding Career

Jessica Crabtree knew she wanted to do work that mattered. The first step was going back to school to pursue a nursing degree at age 28. The next step was a little more up in the air.

Then, as she entered her fourth semester of nursing school, she was intrigued by the VA Learning Opportunities Residency (VALOR) program.

“The more I learned about VA hospitals and the men and women who sought VA hospital health care, the more humbled I was by these extraordinary people,” said Crabtree, now a registered nurse in a VA inpatient psychiatry unit.

Through VALOR, Crabtree was able to secure a residency at the Nashville VA Medical Center. Having resigned from a full-time job with benefits to go back to school, a paid residency and the benefits that would come with a full-time VA position were very appealing to her.

It didn’t take long for her to realize working with Veterans was her future.

“I felt the decision to do everything I could to make the lives of these amazing men and women better was not a choice. It was without a doubt what I intended to do next,” Crabtree said.

“The patient population was the single most appealing aspect of choosing a career at VA. Veterans are a tough and silent group who often do not ask for help until very late,” she added.

When her residency was done, Crabtree segued seamlessly into a full-time position on the same floor.

“I did not have new-hire anxiety,” she said. “This is a huge advantage of the VALOR program versus being hired as a new nurse from the outside.”

This continuity also enhanced the training she received in nursing school, allowing her to understand how a psychiatric inpatient unit operates even before beginning her full-time job.

Because mental health ailments are invisible, patients can be more challenging to treat than traditional medical patients, Crabtree said. During her VALOR residency, she was able to develop skills that you can’t learn in a classroom but that are essential to treating this patient population — including refined intuition, reading of nonverbal language, anticipation of needs, risk aversion and excellent interpersonal skills.

“This experience was invaluable learning for me. I recommend similar training to any new nurse,” Crabtree said.

On a typical day, Crabtree maintains the therapeutic environment for inpatients, evaluates medication and treatment. She also collaborates with the treatment team for precision delivery of complex care. She serves as a first-line patient advocate for Veterans with psychiatric and comorbid medical conditions.

As a bonus, caring for Veterans also helped her better understand her own father, a Vietnam Veteran.

In addition to her positive experience with the VALOR program, Crabtree also has enjoyed the benefits, job security, student loan assistance, and career advancement and continuing education opportunities that come with a VA career. Another perk is the ability to work anywhere in the country in any clinical setting.

But the most rewarding benefit?

“Knowing that I am doing real work that matters and contributes directly to an improvement in someone’s quality of life,” Crabtree said.

Work at VA

If you’re also inspired to make a difference in the lives of Veterans, consider a nursing career at VA.

To learn more about a nursing career in the VA, click here.

VA Asserts Commitment to Diverse Workforce

VA Asserts Commitment to Diverse Workforce

Lt. Col. Joseph Henry Ward, M.D., Dr. John A. Kenney and his son, Dr. Howard W. Kenney, are not exactly household names.

But these VA trailblazers deserve to be remembered for the great strides they made toward equality in health care leading up to and during the Civil Rights Movement.

Since these beginnings, VA has continued its commitment to hiring a diverse workforce. To be able to truly serve our Veterans, VA must cultivate an inclusive and welcoming environment for employees from all backgrounds.

“We are all on the same team, and diversity makes us all better,” said Darren Sherrard, associate director of recruitment marketing at VA.

Fighting for Equal Care

In 1924, Ward became VA’s first African American hospital director at the nation’s only segregated Veteran hospital in Alabama. He served there until his retirement in 1936. A World War I Veteran, Ward lived long enough to see the end of racial segregation in VA hospitals in 1954.

John Kenney was one of the hospital’s first physicians. He fought to have it staffed with African American medical professionals. Later forced to move to New Jersey due to threats to his life and family, Kenney went on to use his own money to build a hospital for African American patients.

But his son, Howard, would return to Alabama and continue his father’s legacy. He served as medical director at the same VA hospital where his father worked. Later, he became the first African American to integrate a formerly all-white VA hospital and VA’s first African American regional director.

VA celebrates these heroes who not only served other American heroes at VA but worked to break down barriers.

Continuing a Culture of Community

VA embraces inclusion and empowers employees to perform to their highest potential. Maintaining this culture of support and community allows employees to feel appreciated and respected. Only then can they provide exceptional care for the nation’s Veterans.

“There is strength in diversity,” said Cathy Mattox, a VA utilization management review registered nurse. “Every nurse brings something to the table; each one of their skillsets and individual experiences are valuable.”

Through VA’s Office of Resolution Management, Diversity and Inclusion, several special-emphasis programs focus on recruiting specific populations, including black/African American, Hispanic, LGBT and individuals with disabilities. The Diversity and Inclusion in VA Council, an independent, executive-level body, advises the VA Secretary about issues related to diversity and inclusion.

Work at VA

If you’re interested in being part of a diverse organization that gives back to America’s Veterans, consider joining our team.

Nurse of the Week: VA Nurse Ben Busey is Always Ready to Serve in a Crisis

Nurse of the Week: VA Nurse Ben Busey is Always Ready to Serve in a Crisis

Nurse of the Week Ben Busey is no stranger to crises. In addition to working as an Urgent Care Nurse Manager at the Roseburg VA Medical Center in Oregon, Busey is also a part of the VA’s Disaster Emergency Medical Personnel System (DEMPS), which deployed him in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria struck. So, he was ready to serve when COVID-19 started to spread in beleaguered New Orleans.

The 34-year-old Busey spent two weeks at the VA in New Orleans at the height of the pandemic, and says, “The first day I walked in there, two people died within the first two hours of me arriving. They had just run out of body bags, the ICU.” In addition to coping with the strained hospital resources, like most frontline nurses he did all he could to maintain connections between isolated patients and their loved ones: “I would end up calling them in the middle of the night to give them updates on a small improvement on my patient, just because I knew that they couldn’t see their family member and they weren’t allowed to be on the unit with them, and they were probably just worrying all the time about how their family member was doing.”

Warned of the PPE shortage in advance, he packed N95 masks for his trip, and used his small supply sparingly, often wearing the same mask for as many as five shifts in a row. Upon his arrival, he quickly learned that it is unwise to make assumptions merely because your age and health place you in a fairly low-risk group. As Busey recalls, “The person who oriented me for a couple of hours that first day when I arrived, he had just come back from being ill with COVID and he was 31. The way he described it, he said every day he sat in his room and he wondered am I dying, because he felt so sick and short of breath…” Fortunately, Busey himself returned unscathed; his test results after his return to Oregon proved negative.

Busey worked night shifts, and provided strong, capable support during his two weeks in New Orleans. When he came back to the Roseburg VA Medical Center, the Center presented him with official recognition for his work during the crisis.

For more on Dan Busey’s experience in New Orleans, visit here.

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