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When Innovation is a Life and Death Matter: How Tech Plays a Key Role in Preventing Veteran Suicide

by | Jul 5, 2022

Change is not always easy. But not changing? Sometimes, it’s a matter of life and death.

Joseph Vaughn, a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) executive, knows firsthand. A 2022 FedHealthIT Innovation Award winner, he’s recognized for his leadership in implementing a technology platform aimed at reducing suicide among the nearly 90,000 veterans served by the VA Salisbury Health Care System in North Carolina.

“Suicide prevention should be a No. 1 priority for any VA director, but it has a more personal meaning to me,” says Vaughn, who’s executive director at VA Memphis Health Care System. “About a year and a half after I joined the VA, my best friend died by suicide.”

Vaughn joined the Navy shortly after high school, stayed for nearly 10 years, then launched a career with BellSouth in his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi.

“It was where I met my wife, and there was a couple that lived across the street from her that she was friends with, and then I got to be friends with them, and the husband got to be my very best friend,” Vaughn recalls.

After a series of promotions, however, Vaughn moved away. That best friend back in Jackson happened to work in benefits for VA, and he tried to persuade Vaughn to apply for jobs there.

“Man, I’m doing great at BellSouth. Why would I even consider that?” Vaughn recalls saying.

Then the dot-com era came along, and Vaughn found himself in the difficult position of having to lay off countless employees. Amid that crisis, the friend asked Vaughn to apply to become assistant chief of the VA business office where he was working. Vaughn protested that he was underqualified, but he agreed. With his experience in both IT and managing union employees, Vaughn landed the job.

It was the beginning of what has turned into a 17-year career with VA. But less than two years after he joined, his friend died by suicide.

“That was one of the worst experiences of my life,” Vaughn says. “If you can stop just one other person from experiencing that, it would be worth everything you had to do to do it.”

Change and innovation have been constant themes of Vaughn’s career. He has worked in the business office and in logistics and has held increasingly senior executive roles at VA medical centers. In Salisbury, Vaughn was approached by technology company DSS Inc. about being a pilot site for what leaders described as a game-changing platform for suicide prevention.

Vaughn enthusiastically agreed, and his suicide prevention team used the Suicide Prevention Manager platform to realize workflow production decreases of as much as 80%, enabling them to faster serve veterans at high risk. They began receiving push notifications for veterans who didn’t show up to appointments. They were able to quickly track the last time of contact for those at high risk.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing in the beginning.

“People are usually resistant to change,” Vaughn says. “Some didn’t see the value in it or see it as a priority, so I had to kind of make it a priority and help them see the value in it. Then once it deployed and they got things up and running and working, everybody was really happy. They were able to work smarter and not harder.”

Vaughn firmly believes in giving people the tools and resources they need and getting out of their way to watch the magic unfold. He also believes in being open to change and new ideas.

“This program was successful not because I went and did anything but because I listened to folks that are experts,” he says.

Vaughn spent nearly four years as executive director of the Salisbury system, but recently left to step into his current role to be closer to his hometown. In Memphis, several innovations are underway – including the planning of an operating room update that will support new, state-of-the-art technologies and care methods. There’s also a recently launched partnership with Uber to provide rides for veterans who need them to get to appointments.

“That program was just getting put into motion when I got here, and it was amazing to listen to how many different excuses people had that it wasn’t going to work,” Vaughn says. Now, the program provides around 400 rideshares a month, and there are plans for expansion and adding a peer networking program.

As the largest health care system in the world, VA continues to be ready to work with private technology companies in ways that can benefit everyone, Vaughn says. When it comes to addressing challenges in an organization, change can be a key to improvement – particularly in scenarios where the stakes are low, he says.

“Take a look at it, and don’t be scared to try something just because you’ve never done it before,” he says. “Worst case scenario, it fails and you pivot.”

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