A new online tool launched by the Department of Veterans Affairs provides patient wait time and quality of care data to veterans in what the agency is calling a first-of-its-kind system.

The internally developed Access and Quality Tool enables veterans to find information such as:

  • Average wait times for patients to be seen in their local area.
  • Descriptions of veterans’ experiences scheduling primary- and specialty-care appointments at specific VA facilities.
  • Quality of care data for VA medical centers, comparing them with local private-sector hospitals.

No other healthcare system in the country is releasing this type of data, contends Poonam Alaigh, MD, the VA’s acting under secretary for health.

“This is really a very exciting time for us as we’re evolving our culture and making sure that we are transparent, and we’re providing our veterans with empowering truths so that they can decide for themselves when, where and how they should be receiving care,” Alaigh says.

The agency’s medical facilities have come under severe criticism in recent years because of long wait times for services. Additionally, the quality of VA providers and services have been questioned as well.

Poonam Alaigh, MD

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Alaigh contends that the online tool translates highly complex data sets into user-friendly, easy-to-understand information on patient wait times and quality of care, enabling veterans to make critical healthcare decisions. In particular, veterans can see what others have said about their own experiences accessing VA services.

“We have put three disparate areas and focus of care into the tool and website,” Alaigh adds. “We have access measures. We have veteran satisfaction measures. And, we have quality of care measures, which really compare the quality of VA facilities to the quality of care in the surrounding private-sector hospitals and clinics.”

By comparing VA healthcare services with those in the private sector, the Access and Quality Tool will help increase the VA’s accountability and ensure the agency is held to a higher standard, Alaigh says.

Making this level of comparative information available hasn’t been attempted by any healthcare organization before because, “it’s risky. You’re actually exposing good, bad and ugly,” she adds. “For us, we want to have that trusting relationship with our veterans.”

When it comes to reporting patient wait times for general services, Alaigh hastens to add that private-sector hospitals do not currently release that kind of data; however, providers do sometimes advertise wait times for emergency department services. The VA tool reports average wait times at individual VA facilities as well as same-day services in primary care and mental health.

“I really do think this will help improve our operations and drive us to be more veteran-centric,” Alaigh contends. “It will help to drive veterans from one facility to another and result in competition, because now you have a medical center or clinic that’s more efficient and more available in a timely manner. Veterans are going to vote with their feet, and that’s where they’re going to go (for care). This will drive internal change. If there are certain clinics and medical centers that are not evolving fast enough, they’re going to see a loss in patient volume.”

In addition, the tool provides a snapshot of the current timeliness of care inside the VA and how quickly veterans are seeing specialists for care needed immediately. For instance, as of April 1, more than 8 million appointments (94 percent) are scheduled for care no later than 30 days after the requested date, while more than 26,500 referrals (95 percent) to a specialist for care needed right away are resolved within seven days.

Nonetheless, Alaigh points out that currently the VA’s Access and Quality Tool does not have the capability to make the actual medical appointments for veterans. However, she says the next version of the tool will include a self-scheduling capability.

Although Alaigh would not commit to a timeline for the next version of the tool, she says that “one feature that we’re hoping to put in place in the next month or two is a feedback function,” through which veterans can provide input on whether the system is helpful and how it can be improved.

“This is a continuously evolving process,” not a static tool, concludes Alaigh. “We’re looking for ongoing feedback on how we’re going to make improvements.”

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