Just one year since the U.S. instated widespread measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Veterans Affairs has over that time released an extensive roster of applications designed to provide critical information and access to key services amidst the public health crisis.
There are currently 55 digital tools on VA's mobile app store, the majority of which are dedicated to providing mental health assistance, health care information, tracking key symptoms, and helping connect veterans with counseling and medical services. These were also used for pandemic assistance.
In October, the agency received the 2020 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal recognizing its advances in providing veterans with health care access in ways including its mobile apps.
Two of the agency’s most notable pandemic-response web applications have been the COVID-19 Screening Tool and COVID Chatbot, both of which facilitate the delivery of VA services.
COVID-19 Screening Tool
Released in June 2020, the COVID-19 screening tool allows visitors to VA clinics and care centers to disclose potential symptoms before entering the facility. This reduced wait times and limited risk of exposure — design goals outlined by two of its primary creators Dr. Kaeli Yuen and Patrick Bateman.
The tool has allowed VA to better allocate care to veterans potentially needing more critical attention while protecting both staff and patients from disease spread, according to an agency press release. Patients who report concerning symptoms were then directed to a designated area for additional screening. The COVID-19 screening tool remains in use across VA facilities, including as part of the agency’s mass vaccination program, according to a page on its website.
The COVID-19 Chatbot facilitates delivery of services to veterans during the pandemic. COVID-19-related calls from veterans to its contact centers increased, which led to various staffing challenges and delays, according to an agency press release. The Chatbot alleviated this strain by allowing veterans to check their symptoms against the latest information about the virus provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Chatbot also communicates information on accessing agency services during the pandemic. The Chatbot interface allows veterans to directly access health care and benefits when these resources are of vital importance to veterans who might require assistance during a particularly arduous time.
COVID Coach App
The VA has also pushed its mental health services offerings, including its COVID Coach app. The app helps veterans track and manage their PTSD symptoms while providing additional resources for building a broader support network.
The agency released full Spanish-language support for the app as part of the agency’s push to increase the language options for its key services, according to an agency press release.
“Developing this app to be accessible to Spanish-dominant veterans and their families is just a small part of our effort to make sure all VA services are attuned to the needs of all veterans,” said Acting Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs Dr. Carolyn Clancy.
Though not an explicit app, per se, VA did fully release its Veterans Health API across all mobile and web platforms in April 2020. The app, initially launched on iOS devices in November 2019, has since been made available on Android and the web. It allows veterans to securely access all of their health information through their phone or tablet while providing portals to the iBlueButton and MyLinks health information exchanges.
These capacities allow veterans to compile and access a complete health history through the app, while sharing health records and critical documents with providers — ensuring a continuity of care and completeness of medical information that is vital to providing the best quality of treatment, according to an agency press release.
VEText for Vaccination
In addition to new applications, VA has also built out its existing digital services to facilitate the end of the pandemic. The agency updated its longstanding VEText program to make it easier for veterans to schedule their COVID-19 vaccine appointment at VA facilities — providing veterans with information on locations, availability and potential wait times in order to help them receive inoculation as quickly as possible.