VA to launch online appointment scheduling
By JEANETTE STEELE | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 9, 2016
Goodbye, long waits on hold. To keep up with the health-care industry and respond to patients’ requests, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs plans to debut online scheduling of medical appointments nationwide in January.
The agency’s more than 6 million patients will be able to schedule primary-care appointments through an app on their phones, tablets or computers.
VA officials hope to add mental-health appointments to the list in the future, in addition to optometry and audiology.
“Do I think this is a huge step forward for the VA? Absolutely,” said Dr. Neil Evans, chief of the office of connected care for the Veterans Health Administration. “I think this is really, really, really important for us to be able to offer.”
The move comes after the VA suffered a black eye nationally in 2014 when a whistleblower in Phoenix revealed that VA schedulers were pressured to fake records to make appointment wait times appear shorter. Evidence that the practice was more widespread led to the resignation of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
One of the tactics used at the time was keeping unofficial lists of patients awaiting care.
The new app software promises to remove the VA scheduler from the equation. Patients will be able to see what appointment slots are available for their physicians and then choose one with the tap of their finger or a click of their computer mouse, VA officials said.
“I think it really increases the transparency of our system,” said Kathy Frisbee, executive director for connected health in the VA’s office of connected care. “I mean, we are exposing our availability to the world.”
The idea isn’t new to the health-care business. For instance, Sharp HealthCare in San Diego County has offered online appointment-making since 2009. The U.S. Defense Department’s medical centers launched online appointments in 2002.
Now the service may be rolled out by the VA just in time.
In the San Diego region, the post-9/11 generation of veterans — likely to be more tech-savvy than their predecessors — recently became the single-largest demographic of local VA patients.
Not everyone is bound to like the innovation.
Even as health systems have introduced scheduling apps, the usage rate is well below 50 percent for making appointments, experts said. At the San Diego Naval Medical Center in Balboa Park, officials said only 7 percent of appointments are made online.
Veterans who don’t embrace cyberspace can still arrange appointments the old-fashioned way, via the VA’s San Diego call center.
However, a common complaint among San Diego veterans is that they must wait a long time to book a medical appointment via phone. One vet at a March 2015 town hall meeting told San Diego VA leaders that it can be quicker to drive to the clinic in person than hold on the telephone for a scheduler.
Also, the call center is only open during business hours — weekdays from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The longest monthly average wait for the San Diego call center in fiscal year 2015 was more than eight minutes in September of that year, the VA said. The shortest monthly average wait was just under two minutes in June 2015.
One in four San Diego County callers hung up while waiting for their call to be answered in fiscal 2015, according to VA data.
VA officials in San Diego have acknowledged problems in retaining call-center employees. It’s a modest-salary job that requires six months of training to master. Schedulers work in a nondescript room packed with cubicles at the VA hospital in La Jolla.
After taking steps to stabilize the work force, officials said the call center is now at full staff with 35 people. However, the workload has jumped as more calls are being routed there, including pharmacy calls and requests for appointments at outlying clinics.
Fewer San Diego vets are giving up, however. The hang-up rate fell to roughly one in 10 in fiscal year 2016.
The VA tested the new app technology with veterans in West Haven, Conn., in July and Boston in October. It got a 91 percent approval rate, Frisbee said.
At first, VA developers thought they’d just offer online requests for appointments — not true scheduling.
But feedback from veterans pushed them to also offer actual do-it-yourself online scheduling. It was the No. 1 request of vets who use the VA’s online portal, called MyHealtheVet, Evans said.
The new app has been discussed in congressional hearings. But otherwise the VA hasn’t marketed it to veterans yet.
The cost to develop the function was $3.2 million. It uses a combination of technology infrastructure from Agilex Technologies, now Accenture Federal Services, and internal development by the VA.
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