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Revolutionizing veteran healthcare: Accentuating patient experience

The VA’s Chief Veterans Experience Officer discusses how the agency is innovating and improving care for veterans.

In the following Q&A, Laura Cooley, the Seventh Annual Patient Experience Symposium Chair talks to John Boerstler, chief veterans experience officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in a conversation about leadership and recent PX interventions at the VA to improve the healthcare experience for veterans and their families. Boerstler presented the opening keynote address as part of last year's Patient Experience Symposium in Boston.

This conversation has been edited down for length.

Laura Cooley: Talk about your title and your role as it stands today.

John Boerstler: I serve as the Chief Veterans Experience Officer here at the United States Department of Veterans Affairs. That’s really the Chief Experience Officer, for lack of a better term, but we put veterans in there because veterans and their families are at the center of everything we do. My role is a mixture of customer, patient, employee and user experience to ensure my team delivers a world-class experience of accessing veterans’ benefits and healthcare across the enterprise.

Laura Cooley: Tell us more about your pathway to becoming the Chief Veterans Experience Officer at the VA.

John Boerstler: I’m not only a patient but a customer of the VA myself. My first entry into the VA was using the education benefits, or what many people call the G.I. Bill, when I got out of the Marine Corps many years ago.

Now I have the opportunity to use the skills I’ve developed in my career, whether that’s using human-centered design or user design, to create delightful experiences here at the VA. And given my unique perspective, I can also think actively about the ways we can improve processes for customers, both in the field and here at VA central office. I make a point to get out at least twice a month to visit with patients, employees, clinicians and staff to understand their pain points, bright spots and moments that matter. How can we best support them and create better ways to enjoy the VA experience?

Laura Cooley: What else inspires you to work in the field of experience or patient experience?

John Boerstler: I’m very people-oriented and care about how people access different products or services we offer. I think it’s important to always think about how we can make improvements because there are always improvements to make.

I’ll actually be at our VA Medical Center in Nashville, where I’ll not only be meeting with the Patient Experience Officer and the patient advocate teams, but I’ll be doing a demo of our new virtual reality inpatient discharge experience. This VR experience will put clinicians and staff in the shoes of the veterans that are on that discharge journey to ensure that we’re addressing the pain points we’ve heard from so many of our veterans.

Laura Cooley: Can you disclose any results from recent improvement efforts at the VA?

John Boerstler: The VA patient experience journey has been one of great success. We’ve come a long way, but still have a long way to go. In 2016, when my office was created, trust in VA as an enterprise was at 55 percent – think of this metric as equivalent to the net promoter score for the private healthcare sector. Fast forward, and we’re now at 79 percent trust. We’ve come so far by creating a solid customer and patient experience foundation the “VA Way.”

We train our staff to lead with our I-Care values – integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence – and encourage them to own the moment while making rounds in the clinical setting. Then, we deliver insights in real-time back to hospital leadership so they can make any necessary investments and improvements in the routine of care.

Laura Cooley: What advice might you offer to other leaders striving to build more trust and see outcomes overall for the people they serve?

John Boerstler: First, listen to your employees. Listen to your clinicians and staff members. If you’re not delivering a world-class employee experience, you can’t provide a world-class patient experience. One cannot exist without the other. Ensure your employees are armed with the necessary tools, data and technology to deliver on the job. That’s the investment I believe all leaders need to make – and continue to make.

Second, listen to your customers. Take advantage of every channel that allows them to communicate with you – whether through surveys, qualitative research, community engagement boards, social media or patient advocates offices. This will help shape your success as a patient experience leader.

Originally published by ICD Healthcare on Aug. 4, 2023.

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