The Department of Veterans Affairs’ ongoing modernization programs facilitated a more rapid and comprehensive response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including in the speed of vaccine distribution.
Speaking at the GovernmentCIO Media & Research Enhancing Veterans Care event, VA leadership described how preexisting IT development as well as recent adaptations have allowed the agency to better provide emergency care. This provided a foundation for further refining VA capacities to better meet the challenges of the prior year.
“We know that no entity can provide services to their constituents without strong IT. So we, of course, anticipated that and have been spending a lot of time modernizing our infrastructure and building enterprise-wide platforms that we could scale to meet the needs of the VA, including investing in the cloud and looking into telehealth capabilities,” said Dominic Cussatt, VA's acting assistant secretary for IT and CIO.
The pandemic has also further demonstrated the need for robust digital services, leading the agency to dedicate additional funding and resources to expanding their availability.
“The pandemic has been interesting in that it's really tested what we built out," Cussatt said. "It was also a real test of our partnerships with our vendor community to get end user devices and equipment that would broaden our bandwidth and broaden our capacity to provide very rich and robust telehealth encounters."
Much of this has included efforts to expand connectivity and digital access to agency services, allowing veterans use of vital capacities even when their technology familiarity might be previously limited.
“To make the screening process of entering a VA Medical Center work better, we took just 12 days to deploy a new questionnaire tool on VA.gov that's now in use across the country," said VA CTO Charles Worthington. "It's been used over 10 million times since we launched it over the summer, and text message is another place where we've really invested. ... We've been able to leverage our investments in platforms like VETText and our new VA Notify platform to better support the mission of [Veterans Health Administration] during this pandemic, with better messaging to the veterans about the current state of the pandemic.”
This investment in IT modernization and consolidated effort across VA has paid considerable dividends in vaccine distribution, allowing these newly deployed capacities and intra-agency partnerships to facilitate delivery.
“There’s really been an all-hands-on-deck effort across VA to try to facilitate the fastest possible delivery of vaccines to veterans," Worthington added. "We've really tried to make it simple for veterans to understand who the VA is currently vaccinating and make it clear to them how they can get a vaccine."
The agency has used text messaging, including a two-way text messaging experience at various medical centers where they are texting veterans when it's their turn to offer them an appointment, Worthington said. Then an automated system will respond.
"We've scheduled over 130,000 first dose vaccine appointments using this automated system, and that saves about 10 minutes per appointment in scheduler time,” Worthington said.
In addition to the considerable technical advances, VA is also endeavoring to better reach underserved populations like tribal communities through outreach and a dedication to human-centered design.
“We're going to be doing a human-centered design sprint to really understand the experiences of that population when they interact with VA," said Deputy Chief Veterans Experience Officer Barbara Morton. "Women veterans is another area that we've been diving into, with journey mapping and research, and when you talk to your customers and really understand their journey, you're able to then prototype and test tangible tools and adaptations to meet them where they are, and to specifically address their needs."