On a busy city corner, there’s a man playing a trumpet with a bucket nearby holding a few dollar bills and a little bit of hope. His song echoes off the concrete as people scurry by, rationalizing, “I’m late. Someone else will drop a dollar in his cup.” He is not their concern. He’s a veteran.
This dismissive, inward focus is what keeps people operating in safe zones far beyond the sidewalk. A “That’s just the way things are” mentality creeps into our business models and our corporate culture — including our VA medical facilities — from the full pursuit of possibility and meaningful progress. Maybe we can’t change the world, but we can change our choices. A good place to start is to change the days of those who served our country, and now need a little return on that down payment.
In our nation’s VA hospitals and clinics, the places where the cost of freedom and national security are best appreciated, pursuit of possibility should occur every day. In one of those medical facilities on any given day, there’s a veteran experiencing a frustrating wait to be seen. A clerk, nurse or physician walking by sees the exasperation, but resigns herself to “first-come, first-served” policies and feels powerless to help. What if that veteran were simply engaged in conversation that distracts from the wait?
Seizing small moments like that can have big implications for a health care system that needs to compete with the private sector to stay alive. Being veteran-centric should be considered a core value for a system that derives its purpose from the existence and needs of those who served. So why aren’t more moments being seized? Why do some VA staff members persist in being chained to policy and pessimism at the expense of alienating a special patient base? Now is the time to scrutinize how well VA’s veteran-centric ideals are being realized.
One way is through investment in specialized services for severely disabled veterans. VA Secretary David Shulkin recently directed each VA Medical Center to invest 5 percent of its budgets into foundational services, which includes the Spinal Cord Injury/Disease system of care that Paralyzed Veterans of America safeguards.
Championing the most comprehensive specialty care for the most grievously injured veterans is what gives us our character as advocates — and what should inform the compassion and responsiveness of all those charged with delivering care to veterans.
While many have offered their prescriptions for curing what ails the VA — from complete privatization to speeding up the time it takes to fire employees — there are also positive motivators to consider:
—Empower staff to make decisions that best serve veterans in their daily work.
—Create incentives and recognition for excelling in the mission of compassion.
—Attract and retain employees who see and seek what is possible when we care.
For those who choose to work with veterans, who choose to serve those who have served our country, the rewards should be limitless. Our nation’s health care mission is clear and crucial — and has historically proved to be increasingly successful.
In the 1940s, a spinal cord injured veterans had a life expectancy of only 18 months; by 1998 that life expectancy mirrored that of the greater population. This could not have been achieved without the excellent work and effort toward creating a system characterized by lifelong coordination of care. But that system is being challenged by providers who cast doubt on that commitment.
Maybe it’s the act of personally walking a former soldier to his car; taking a lunch break outside to converse with an elderly Marine; speaking with a worried spouse as though he or she is your only concern at that moment. We need to shift our focus from getting-the-day-done to getting to the heart of what each veteran is saying and needing. Yes, that takes time.
Investing time on the front end with veterans will prevent needless pain and suffering and restore faith in our health care system. The minutes we spend will create a culture measured not by timesheets but by personal attention, respect and specialty medical care that is unavailable elsewhere.
Veterans can be tough patients. Arguably the toughest. Many have endured harsh mental and physical trials in service, and continue to do so in their daily lives. Still, we must honor them and rise to meet their challenges yet again. We must do so with continued sensitivity to their plights. We must make the private sector envious of how in tune we are with our patients, how willing we are to care for them in every way.
It starts with you. You must embrace the potential of change to be a part of it. When you embrace a truly veteran-centric mindset, the ripple effects will be profound.
Your next moment to seize awaits you in hospital waiting rooms and hallways — or maybe on a street corner — every day.