VA employees pitch ideas for improving health services in "Shark Tank" style scrum

Enterprising Veterans Affairs employees took to a podium Monday in Washington, D.C. to pitch projects for improving VA health care, hoping their novel ideas would win support -- and funding – for implementation across the department.

Taking a cue from the ABC show Shark Tank, the VA Innovation Demo Day brought these employee-entrepreneurs before a panel of VA leaders, including VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. David Shulkin, who said the goal of the event was to highlight programs that could work for the system at large.

"Those of us who have a chance to visit different VAs across run into staff who have terrific ideas and are working to make lives better for veterans, but those ideas tend to stay within these isolated VAs," Shulkin said. "The best thing to do was to surface these best practices and, once we believe they are making a difference, make sure they are consistently applied."

Since he was appointed to his position a year ago, Shulkin has sought to promote entrepreneurship within the ranks. Earlier this year, VA established a new Center for Innovation that oversees an "innovators network" to provide training, support and funding for problem solving.

The initiatives showcased at the D.C. event addressed several widely recognized issues at VA, from problems with access to care to suicide prevention, mental health services and technology.

The 33 projects pitched at the event included: Fitbits for aging patients and Apple watches for veterans in rural regions to monitor physical activity; using nurses to triage same-day appointment requests to ensure immediate care for those who it; and increasing access to complimentary activities like yoga, art and writing to improve wellness.

All were funded by one of three VA programs, including "Spark" grants that give $5,000 to $10,000 to get an idea rolling, "Seed" grants of less than $50,000 that can be obtained once an idea has demonstrated the project will work and "Spread" grants between $100,000 and $500,000 to expand the projects to other VA facilities.

VA Boston Healthcare System gastroenterologist Dr. Navin Kumar used a Spark grant to develop a smartphone app that would help patients prep properly for a colonoscopy.

Hooking his audience with slides of improperly prepped colons and unsettling statistics, Kumar said doctors miss pre-cancerous growths in about a third of patients who didn't follow the required bowel cleansing protocol before their procedure.

His app, developed with the help of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student, guides patients through the proper diet, fluid intake and bowel prep the week before their colonoscopy. Following Kumar's presentation, an audience member asked to speak with him about patenting the design.

"This is great," Kumar said after meeting with several administrators and doctors interested in his creation. "When I walked in this room, I was like, where am I? It's so modern, which is not usually what people think of when they hear 'VA.'"

Shulkin said the employees selected to present at the D.C. event had to demonstrate that their projects were attractive to VA facilities beyond their own, and the presentations were streamed to major VA facilities, where staff members were watching.

"These are clearly ideas that not only can help VA but can help private health facilities around the country," he said.

Shulkin said he thinks the value of the demonstration day lies in the ideas that eventually will be adopted and those that have yet to be conceived.

"The VA had become a place that was so criticized that people didn't feel they were allowed to enjoy what they are doing. But when you combine the passion people have for caring for veterans with the ability to use their brains and implement ideas, it brings joy back to work," he said. "It's exciting."

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