Since its inception at the end of World War I, Veterans Day has served as our opportunity to honor those who have served, as well as those who continue to serve, in our country’s armed forces. But such tributes represents only a part of the kind of reflection that this day is intended to bring. We also have the responsibility to ask ourselves whether we, as a nation, are doing right by them; and if the answer to that question tips at all into the negative, to commit ourselves to ensuring our military and political leaders put things right, without delay.
That the system of health care provided by Department of Veterans Affairs needs to change seems a given (even within the institution itself). We hear often about issues of access, the need to speed up the timeliness of service, of the bureaucratic hurdles our veterans and their families must overcome, of shortages of the resources front-line clinicians need to perform their jobs. It’s easy to forget the level of commitment that is there – and has always been there – from those providing the care; of their extraordinary level of compassion and skill these VA service providers represent. I was reminded of this important point by a recent University of Michigan’s Health Lab blog post by Dr. Sanjay Saint, a research fellow and former practicing physician at four different VA hospitals.
I have been visiting veterans’ hospitals for several decades now. What I have seen during these visits has been extraordinarily consistent. What I see are care providers, doctors, nurses and staff, up close and personal, providing high-quality care.
It may surprise people to learn that, in studies by the RAND Corporation and others, when VA care is measured against the private sector, it rates as high as or better than some of the country’s best hospitals. In addition, with 168 medical centers and more than one thousand outpatient clinics and other facilities, VA care represents the largest integrated health care system in the country. As Dr. Saint reminds us, VA research programs have been responsible for many major medical breakthroughs, including in areas such as cardiac care, prosthetics and infection prevention.
In addition to treatment, Dr. Saint also points out that VA hospitals have long played an essential role in medical education as well. Studies show that two out of three medical doctors in practice in the U.S. today received some part of their training at a VA hospital. The VA is considered the largest provider of health care training in the country. But, in my experience, VA facilities offer veterans much more than health care. Just as its special group of patients is linked by a common bond of military service to our country, their VA caregivers become part of that bond. The caring and connection is evident. But changes need to occur if we’re to truly fulfill our mission to heal, restore and reinstate these men and women to their proper place in civilian life.
In a 2015 briefing by VA Chief Information Officer Stephen Warren, it was pointed out that more than half of the VA’s proposed 2016 technology budget was earmarked toward delivering better outcomes for vets; to build out a tech infrastructure that supports customized health care tools for veterans. These tools were to include mobile and telehealth technologies, advanced electronic health records, and a new scheduling system. Also included was the beginning of a pilot program for a major 10-year investment in updating the VA’s aging telephone system. Warren described the programs as an enhanced part of “mission delivery” and a move to “veteran-focused outcomes versus an organizational-focused” outcomes. Progress on these efforts need to be reviewed and the public must be kept apprised.
Today only half of all community health centers are certified by the VA. This certification program is part of a federal Veterans Choice initiative established by Congress to improve access to community-based health care for veterans facing long wait times or travel distances for services at VA facilities.
Without the knowledge and insights VA clinicians can provide, civilian health care professionals can miss opportunities to address the health care issues that are visited upon veterans specifically, many on a daily basis. To successfully address these issues, communities and local health organizations must become a substantial part of the VA solution moving forward, and this certification program must be accelerated. Not to be lost in this effort is the promising results holistic and alternative medicine programs are showing, and the critical role veterans must play in joining with health care professionals to provide peer-to-peer solutions to help other veterans.
As reported earlier this year, of combat veterans returning home after serving our country, as many as 30 percent struggle with mental health issues in which symptoms often worsen after they leave the structure and comradery of military life and hospital treatment. So much of this issue is now a community issue, one that requires government supported community solutions. The care these men and women need should never seem out of reach. It should be there, at their doorstep.
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.