Last month, a shocking report surfaced which revealed that the Phoenix branch of the Department of Veterans Affairs used a secret list to falsify patient waiting times. This revelation is the latest in a series of reports documenting treatment delays and rigged record keeping at multiple VA hospitals. And while politicians on both sides of the aisle are pointing fingers and trading accusations of blame, all is not lost.
The VA scandals offer an important teachable moment in the path of American health care consumerism. With the right combination of internal strategy and reform, this PR disaster can be turned into a strengthening moment.
VA Health Scandals: What Went Wrong
In the post WWII era, the VA was considered to be on the cutting edge of American health care. Partnerships between medical school faculty and VA hospitals led to a dramatic increase in the quality of veterans’ care — and even advances within the field of medicine itself. In the last few decades, however, as modern medicine has crept ever closer toward primary and preventative care, the VA has remained wedded to outdated treatment protocols. Moreover, a backlog of veterans’ disability claims, an influx of new veterans into the system, and an incentive structure for VA administration that rewarded reported efficiencies exacerbate the VA’s issues.
The 1996 Veterans’ Health Care Reform Eligibility Act helped move the agency towards a model of integrated health care. This act led to the opening of hundreds of outpatient clinics across America, increasing the VA’s capacity to care for veterans while embracing innovative means for tracking health care outcomes. In the last decade, however, the VA system has struggled to keep up with technological advancements and care demands. Under the Bush Administration, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center was shuttered following a Washington Post investigation that revealed shocking cases of patient neglect and unfit living conditions.
VA Health Scandals: What Needs to Change
The recent reports of falsified records at the Phoenix VA are the latest in a long line of troubling reports to emerge from the beleaguered agency. This is a pivotal turning point for not only the Veterans Administration health system, but for American health care in general. Rather than paying a lip service apology for yet another scandal about inferior health care, this is an opportunity to really speak to how the American health system can better serve patients by understanding the beliefs and motivators that drive wellness behaviors.
Two decades ago, the VA embraced a proactive health care model that was designed to bring care directly to the community, rather than waiting for veterans to seek care after becoming sick or injured. Returning to the push for proactive, preventative care is essential to more effectively reaching patients and improving health care outcomes. This starts with a push towards better digital health care in response to the growing trend of health care consumerism.
#1: Restore transparency.
While the VA has a long way to go when it comes to bouncing back from this latest breach of trust, improved transparency would help. In today’s interconnected world, a consumer would never make a major product purchase without Googling its reviews first. The same goes for health care. Restoring transparency starts with lifting the shroud and mystery surrounding hospital care. Simple but effective examples of how to begin accomplishing this include a short online video tour of facilities and policies, in-depth procedure descriptions, published steps being taken to facilitate transparency, and detailed information about wellness and disease prevention.
#2: Offer digital communication.
Overwhelmingly, today’s patients say they prefer electronic communication opportunities — whether that’s an email reminder about an upcoming appointment, the ability to schedule appointments online, or the ability to request online prescription refills. Digital connections can also facilitate efficient communications between patients and providers, helping to establish and cement trust. Digital solutions matter to health care consumers.
#3: Understand patient motivators.
Fundamentally, health care consumerism is all about patient-centric solutions. Consequently, in order to provide health care solutions that truly resonate with consumers, health care providers need to understand patient motivators. What are the triggers to activate different patient types? Where do patients go for preventative care and wellness information? How can health care providers better empower patients to proactively take control of their health?
The VA’s issues provide an opportunity for other healthcare systems to learn better approaches and avoid unnecessary lapses in care or judgment. It’s also a lesson in what happens when incentives are in place to reward process measures instead of actual outcomes and patient satisfaction. A consumer-centric approach to healthcare delivery will help facilitate desired results.