Commentary

What dog tags can teach us about veteran care coordination in the wake of COVID-19

For those who serve in the military, being in harm’s way is part of the job. When they return home and leave the service, however, harm’s way should not extend to their everyday lives as veterans. But that’s exactly what happens for many whose medical treatment plans for the physical and mental scars of service involve multiple providers in different systems.

While the VA MISSION Act remedied the problem of veterans having to wait months on urgent and acute care waitlists by giving them the option to see non-VA providers at VA expense, there were trade offs. Perhaps the most critical was a heavy reliance on multiple providers who see the same veteran to ensure documentation of treatment, drug prescriptions, and test results made it into the veteran’s master VA health record. This would require compatibility between various records systems and policies within each agency, which has remained elusive even between VA medical centers, much less VA and non-VA entities.

Under ordinary circumstances, this problem is fairly manageable, at best, by those veterans and caregivers who are able to detail aspects of past care that do not appear in their records. However, veterans who have trouble recollecting those details or have complex medical issues run the risk of omitting important details, which could impact the efficacy of treatment between multiple providers. The novel coronavirus pandemic has made it more likely that veterans will access more providers in unfamiliar systems, which means every routine and non-routine provider will need to be aware of all treatments, especially those related to COVID-19, in addition to other treatments.

As the pandemic persists, the majority of veterans with risk factors such as age, diabetes, mental issues, etc., will need to be a high priority for testing, therapeutic treatment, and, before long, safe and effective vaccines. Making sure that medical care, whether preventive or therapeutic, is appropriate and timely requires having ready access to complete and accurate medical records. This is especially crucial because of the concurrent threats of influenza and pneumonia for vulnerable groups.

The fact is today it is typically very difficult for veterans to obtain the medical records their providers need, without which their care might well be delayed or suboptimal.

Timely access to critical medical information placed in the hands of patients or casualties is not new to the military. For decades our men and women in uniform have worn dog tags on the battlefield, carrying vital information such as blood type and history of inoculations. This was especially critical in the event different providers needed to treat the same casualty based on split-second clinical decisions. Similarly, veterans today would benefit from instant access to their complete medical records through web-based portals they can open on a computer at the doctor’s office or on their smart phones, and can provide critical information in real time, efficiently and securely, to the VA and other providers. While many applications that allow for storage of electronic health records are available, considerations such as cost, ease of functionality, security, and compatibility with virtually any electronic record system cannot be overlooked.

One such application, called the Sync.MD app, meets this criteria. The app is free to all veterans, puts care coordination in their hands and allows them to transport records wherever they go or send them to whomever is appropriate. By streamlining access to records in this way, it removes all the red tape and barriers to access that exist in today’s fragmented health-care ecosystem that often leads to burdensome and time-consuming requests for records. Innovations such as this one are not always easy to socialize in systems that resist change and operate in silos, which is why veterans themselves must drive demand.

This starts with putting the control in their hands and empowering them to manage their care on their terms.

Like most viruses, the novel coronavirus is expected to mutate and adapt to a changing environment, making it even more dangerous should we fail to adapt just us quickly. While veterans are often among the most vulnerable patient populations given the tremendous toll that military service takes on their bodies and minds, they’re also among the most adaptive when given the right tools. It’s time we equip them with a modern day version of the dog tag in the battle to save lives.

Sherman Gillums Jr. is a retired Marine Corps officer and AMVETS chief advocacy officer. Eugene Luskin is CEO and founder of VYRTY Corporation, which makes the Synch.MD app.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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