Innovation playing a larger role at Veterans Affairs

The Department of Veterans Affairs is operating on several fronts to keep its services to veterans up to date. One channel for that is the Veterans Health Admin...

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The Department of Veterans Affairs is operating on several fronts to keep its services to veterans up to date. One channel for that is the Veterans Health Administration program called the Innovation Ecosystem. It sponsors projects to help everything from suicide prevention to online lactation advice. Later this month VHA will showcase 18 projects in an online demonstration fair. Ryan Vega is the Innovation Ecosystem executive director. He spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Ryan Vega: We really look at this as an ecosystem that exists not only within the walls of the VA, but outside. Whether it’s partnerships with private industry or academia. And it’s really intended to create a robust network, really a community of practice, so to speak, of folks that are committed to this idea of mission-driven innovation coming together to help advance care, service and operations for our nation’s veterans, their caregivers. and at times, even our own workforce.

Tom Temin: A lot of it seems to be related, a lot of the projects seem to be related to the idea of telehealth and delivering remote services. And that predates the pandemic, though doesn’t it?

Ryan Vega: It certainly does. And one of the things we’re very proud of, VA’s own Neil Evans, Kathy Frisbee and Kevin Galpin won a Sammie award for management, and they’ve just really helped lead and usher in this incredible infrastructure that was in place, pre-COVID, that we were able to not only utilize and rely upon but really expand the idea of reaching and connecting and maintaining relationships with patients and providers, through video connect, through digital means. And so we’re starting to see this, I think, become part of the new normal, not just for VA, but for healthcare writ large. And it’s just a really incredible asset that we’ve had at our disposal. And I think you’re going to see a lot more innovations come. You mentioned the telelactation program – really just the unique utilization of telehealth where now we can connect a female veteran with specialists in lactation or nursing, which is a service that we probably couldn’t provide or even we’re thinking about a year ago.

Tom Temin: First of all, who can offer an idea for the innovation ecosystem? And when they do, how does it become a project?

Ryan Vega: Yeah, that’s a great question. So there’s a number of different pathways. When we think about a robust innovation pipeline, you really have to have a number of entry points. So it doesn’t really matter at which stage the idea is, it could be an idea that really comes from left field, it hasn’t really even been baked, all the way to something that’s ready to be scaled. So we offer entry points at multiple different, we call it maturation stages of the lifecycle. But the really unique thing is that it’s not just for VA employees, we have programs that focus specifically on VA employees ideas. We also create pathways for the private sector or for academic affiliate partners to work with us directly to come and partner with either one or two or three or even more VA medical centers on a project. So it’s really something that we value as an asset that really is helping us drive and advance care.

Tom Temin: And there could be money to help seed projects, if that’s required?

Ryan Vega: That’s exactly right. So we have a program really focused on our own workforce, really that intrapreneurship of VA called Spark-Seed-Spread, where spark grants may just be a couple of thousands of dollars all the way to spread grant, where you have a project that’s really showing great results. And we fund and help contribute to not only workforce development around training, but actually putting some capital into helping this project spread beyond just the VA Medical Center that it started at.

Tom Temin: Looking at the list of projects that might be featured at the upcoming innovation experience event, the online event, these really do run the gamut, as you say, from prosthetic shock management tool to a bike share program. So it’s patients and VA employees. I think that comes out when you look at the list.

Ryan Vega: Yeah, so one of the things we really value as a I’ll call it a cornerstone of the innovation approach is we believe that those on the front line those nurses, those therapists, even those folks that are scheduling veterans – they’re really best positioned to understand not only the challenges that they’re experiencing in the day to day work, but whether solutions are actually working for them. It’s something that’s often not considered as a decision-making criteria is the impact some change or innovation may have on the workflow. But equally, they’re also connected to the veteran. So they’re working directly with veterans to understand their issues, their problems and whether solutions are working for them. And that human-centered design, that human-centered approach is really vital in order to ensure that we are getting solutions out there that even if they change the [life] of one veteran, that it’s actually making a difference.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dr. Ryan Vega, he’s executive director of the Innovation Ecosystem at the Veterans Health Administration. And tell us more about the upcoming event. I guess people won’t be there in person but it’ll be online like everything else.

Ryan Vega: It will. So ordinarily, we are at the National Press Club. It’s an event we’ve been doing for the past two years. We bring everyone together completely open to the public, to really showcase some of the amazing work going on within the VA around innovation. And this can be like you mentioned, solutions that are aimed at improving connection points or ride share programs to help veterans get to and from appointments. This was something that was pivoted and use to help bring food and even personal goods to veterans during the pandemic, all the way to bioprinting, which sounds so science fiction, but it is actually using 3D printing technology to produce living bone and living cells that teams are working on today. So you’re right, it runs the full gamut. We say that innovation shouldn’t be limited to just science and technology – it can also be reimagining the way that we provide services, whether it’s digitally or even ride share programs.

Tom Temin: And I imagine to sustain a program like this, you really need support from the highest levels of VA, don’t you?

Ryan Vega: We absolutely do. It’s one of the things we’ve been so blessed with and fortunate is that we have incredible leadership support that is really invested in driving this culture for and so we really think about, why are veterans going to choose VA tomorrow? What is it that we’re going to deliver tomorrow, that will continuously drive those high trust cores that we see today? And it’s really thinking and imagining to bring the veteran the health care of tomorrow today. So whether it’s advances in 3d printing, whether it’s advances in digital health, even telelactation programs targeted for the increasing and rising number of women veterans engaging with VA services, it starts at the top. And it’s about their commitment to our workforce and our employees, and their unwavering commitment to delivering veterans the best care.

Tom Temin: And sometimes it even starts at the bottom here is an idea from the VA Sierra Nevada health care system to add a sweeper attachment to housekeeping carts, so that when staff are traveling with a cart from point A to point B – I’m reading from the entry here – that they can sweep the floors while they’re at it, and keep the facility cleaner.

Ryan Vega: Exactly, really, it’s sometimes these really simple and novel ideas, that truly are innovative. And one of the great things about our innovators network program is that it allows anyone across the organization who has a really great idea to engage with VA leaders at the highest level. So a lot of this was about breaking down some of the bureaucracy that was going directly to the frontline, and giving them an opportunity to help change not only what may happen at their medical center, but sometimes practices spread to multiple regions and even across the organization. And so it’s amazing that what starts at one VA can actually transform care across the entire organization.

Tom Temin: Now you’re a relatively recently minted physician. What about the old timers? How do they take to these ideas that might have been treating people from just the end of the Vietnam era, perhaps?

Ryan Vega: Yeah, you bring up a really important point. And so we mentioned the idea that one of the real important criteria in decision making is understanding how are these solutions, how are these changes being incorporated into the way that people normally go about their day? So whether you’re a provider, or whether you’re a housekeeper helping to keep the hospital clean and reduce the spread of germs, you have a system that you go about. And if we come in and say you need to change everything you’re doing, and I can’t prove to them that the way that we’re suggesting is going to be more effective, efficient, or really helped them do their job better, it’s highly unlikely that they’re not going to really adopt what it is that we’re saying to do. So a lot of it is working with them. And understanding that these solutions are not only helping to deliver care and service better, but it’s actually helping our staff do their jobs more effectively. And so they generally will embrace it when you embrace them.

Tom Temin: The Innovation Experience coming up later in October open to the public, and anyone can tune in?

Ryan Vega: Completely open to the public. We’re really excited. We’ll actually – we’ll be at the Press Club hosting it. So there’ll be a live broadcast. We have a number of really exciting speakers, you’ll hear from some of our top leadership within VA, you’ll hear from some innovators – Dean Kaman, the inventor of the Segway; you’ll hear from Dr. Ken Kaiser, the former undersecretary. So we really have sort of a wide ranging panel, so to speak, of experts in this area, both healthcare delivery as well as innovation. And then you’ll hear from some of our industry partners, Microsoft, Salesforce, folks that are helping to drive innovation from not only a enterprise level, but even working with our frontline staff. And then we think most importantly, on the third day, you’ll actually hear from VA employees, individuals who’ve received some funding who are doing just incredible work to continue to advance care and service. And we round out the three days with having those folks kind of take us home.

Jared Serbu: Dr. Ryan Vega is the executive director of the Innovation Ecosystem and the Veterans Health Administration. We’ll post this interview along with links to the IEX projects at And you can hear the Federal Drive on demand and on your device. Subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Podcastone.

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