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Milwaukee VA Medical Center


Joint project would improve 911 system for Vets

West Allis Fire Department and VA Medical Center personnel with a patient on a gurney

The plan would allow Veterans who are residents of West Allis and receive medical care at the Milwaukee VA, to be pre-identified as a Veteran in the 911 system. (Photo by Benjamin Slane)

By Jim Hoehn
Tuesday, September 4, 2018

An innovative partnership between the Milwaukee VA Medical Center and West Allis Fire Department could result in life-saving changes on 911 calls made by Veterans.

The project allows Veterans who are residents of West Allis and receive medical care at the Milwaukee VA, to be pre-identified by voluntarily providing their name, address and status as a Veteran to show up in the 911 system.

This would help determine if the Milwaukee VA is the most appropriate destination for emergency medical care.

“What we have identified over the last few years is that some of our sickest Veterans are not calling 911 to come to the hospital,” said Ben Thelen, nurse manager at the Milwaukee VA. “They’ll either drive themselves, or take a bus, or have a family member bring them. We’ve had them in the passenger seat in the car and pull into the ambulance bay and we have to do CPR out there.”

The project, called Improving ED Access Through EMS Collaboration, was funded by a Spark Innovation Investment grant from VA. The program is believed to be the first of its kind, Thelen said.

In addition to providing better care for Veterans, the program also would help contradict myths and misconceptions perpetuated by those outside the VA, Thelen said.

“Veterans would say I have to go to the VA, that’s where I get my care, that’s where I want to go, I like it there, they give good care – and the financial element.” Thelen said. “So, they have gotten in the habit of just driving here, which is kind of scary when you’re really sick and you’re behind the wheel, or someone is driving here.

“But, it happens every single day,” he said. “Our sickest patients still are not coming by ambulance, they’re coming through other means, so we really want to try to change that paradigm.”

The concept for the 911 program was the result of collaborative discussions between the Milwaukee VA and West Allis Fire Department, stemming from the department’s Mobile Integrated Health Initative, said Lt. Jason Schaak of the WAFD.

“We wanted to find out why were Veterans so afraid of calling 911? There's a lot of different reasons,” said Schaak, who is a Navy Veteran. “We wanted to quickly put in place a couple of ways we could transport more Veterans to the emergency department of their choosing, while we're out in the field providing care.”

Electronic patient care reporting systems make identifying a patient’s medical home much easier than in the past, which is important for Veterans, Schaak said.

“In emergency medicine you have to transport people to the closest, most appropriate facility,” Schaak said. “What comes in to question, the closest part's pretty easy to take care of, but for most appropriate, there's a little room for anaylsis. What's appropriate for a Veteran, and what I'd call a standard citizen, they vary a little bit. The VA is almost a specialty hospital for dealing with Veterans.

“They have special needs, they're special people,” he said. “They've had unique experiences in life and because of that, they require the resources of a Veterans hospital times. If their medical condition allows, we may even drive a little further in terms of distance to get them to the most appropriate place, which would be the Veterans hospital.”

About 2,000 enrollment forms were mailed to Veterans that live in West Allis. The mailing included a letter that describes the program, along with a pre-paid return envelope.

“We’re the first doing this in the country, so there’s really no good benchmark for what to expect when this is completed,” Thelen said. “We’re able to see how many Vets come right now and historically from West Allis via 911. So, we’re going to measure pre- and post-. If 1,000 people sign up for this, did we see an increase in ambulance traffic to our hospital? It will be interesting to find out.”

Thelen and Schaak were selected to jointly make a presentation about the program at the VHA Innovation Experience in August at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.


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