Operation: Rural Rx

Veterans Affairs showcases project to improve health care for patients living in rural areas

David Bill, a service designer for Booz Allen Hamilton, shows off the Veterans Affairs innovation project, “Understanding Rural Veterans,” a visual representation of interviews conducted with veterans living in rural areas throughout the scope of the Grand Junction Veterans Medical Center. Bill and two of the medical center’s representatives will present their findings this fall to Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Michael Kilmer

For a veteran living far from a major city, access to a full slate of health care options can come with many barriers.

However, a group at the Grand Junction Veterans Health Care System is working to remove some of the roadblocks.

Two employees and a contractor with the Veterans Affairs Medical Center were recently tasked with a project by the Veterans Affairs Center for Innovation to gain an understanding of challenges veterans in rural areas face when accessing their health care. Some of those findings were on display at the hospital Monday.

“We are a rural community and there are certain unique challenges with serving that population,” VA hospital innovation specialist Erica Deveau said. “We were looking to get insight from the veterans to figure out if they were seeing the same barriers we see.”

Deveau, RN nurse manager Laura Johnson and contract service designer David Bill have spent the past three weeks traveling and interviewing willing veterans in rural areas around Colorado, Utah and parts of Georgia, New Hampshire and Vermont to listen to them, ask questions and identify some common problems they are facing.

Deveau noted some of the recurring comments dealt with access to services in small communities, transportation and a need to improve tele-health services, which allows doctors to examine patients virtually.

“A lot of it had to do with how we access and support our community partners. Building better relationships with them definitely is a need in rural areas. Transportation, although we have it, can be improved,” Deveau said.

The group reached out to veterans through groups such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and some patient advocates. The sites in Georgia, New Hampshire and Vermont were chosen from a list of rural sites the VA had listed. All told, the group visited with 10 men, five women and two providers.

Johnson said most of the veterans were grateful that there were people willing to listen and she remembers one who said that the day they visited was his best day.

“They had an opportunity to voice (their problems) and somebody came into their home and listened to their story,” she said. “We got great response from veterans. It was a privilege to be welcomed into their homes.”

The current project shows some photos of the veterans — who are given pseudonyms — quotes they provided, and some conclusions of recurring themes that are organized into a visual representation that will soon travel to the Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Deveau, Johnson and Bill will head there to give a presentation this fall.

Grand Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center Director Michael Kilmer said he was impressed that the group was able to turn their project around so quickly. Projects like this often get eight to 12 weeks, but this was needed sooner.

“We’re looking at how to modernize the VA, and this info is going to our customer base,” Kilmer said. “We’re figuring out their needs and what their challenges are and this will support them.”

The group will continue the work and attempt to narrow the focus to a few items that can be improved to help veterans in not just these rural areas, but across the U.S.

“We’re hoping this will benefit some other rural facilities,” Deveau said. “We all kind of have the same barriers and challenges. We’re hoping they can use this based off of insights we’ve gathered and can build processes and services for their veterans,too.”


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