VA launches ‘new, unique’ tool to help prevent veteran suicides
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 20, 2017
WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs recently unveiled a new program that reviews veterans’ health records to identify which ones might attempt suicide.
The VA launched the new analytics program nationwide this month. It uses a computer algorithm to comb through veterans’ electronic health records and identifies factors, such as chronic illness, socioeconomic stressors, hospitalizations, relationship issues, life changes and certain medical and mental health conditions, that indicate who could be at risk of attempting suicide. The goal, said Aaron Eagan, the program manager, is for the VA to know earlier when to step in and try to prevent a potential crisis.
“In suicide prevention, it is a new, unique approach,” Eagan said. “If we can engage people well and build trust and make sure their needs are being met, we eliminate them ever getting to a point where they would have a crisis. That’s the idea of the program.”
The program was piloted in October at VA medical centers in Erie and Butler, Pa., before a decision was made to expand it across the country. It’s now available at all VA hospitals.
So far, approximately 6,400 of the most high-risk VA patients across the country are included in the program, which is titled Recovery Engagement and Coordination for Health – Veterans Enhanced Treatment, or REACH VET.
Eagan described it as an alert system.
Coordinators were put in place at the more than 150 VA hospitals across the country. When the program identifies a combination of factors that put a veteran at risk, the coordinators take the information to a health care provider, who calls the veteran to “engage in a conversation,” Eagan said. The provider may make a referral for specialty care.
“We want to make sure that we recognize they have a lot of complex issues… and do anything to address those needs,” Eagan said. “The science is not there to identify a veteran who is at acute clinical risk of losing their life to suicide. Many, if not all, the veterans we identify may never have had suicidal thoughts or behavior, but they do have a lot of factors that contribute to risk. And we want to take a proactive and public health approach here.”
The VA has worked to develop the program for about six years, Eagan said.
Veterans face a higher risk of suicide than the rest of the population, according to the latest VA statistics. While veterans made up about 8.5 percent of the U.S. population in 2014, they accounted for 18 percent of suicides.
An average of 20 veterans died from suicide each day in 2014. Six of the 20, on average, were enrolled in VA health care.
VA Secretary David Shulkin has told lawmakers that he’s made suicide prevention a priority.
“This cutting-edge program is saving lives by identifying at-risk veterans and connecting them with the specialized care and support they need,” he said in a prepared statement.