On a rainy Wednesday evening Sept. 9, about 50 people gathered in the lower atrium of the Charles George VA Medical Center for the quarterly Town Hall meeting. Launched about a year ago, the sessions started as part of the VA’s outreach efforts to ensure that every veteran’s voice is heard and recognized.
“It is a way to communicate to a broader audience and give veterans just one more forum to raise any issues or concerns,” says Cynthia Breyfogle, medical center director of the local VA. “This is something that the VA headquarters asked us to do, but it really wasn’t anything new for us; we’ve always kind of done that.”
The town halls, which are open to the public and the media, reflect what the Charles George VA Medical Center already had been doing with its smaller, year-round monthly forums directed to vets only.
“Vets use these meetings to highlight what they like, don’t like and any problems they are having,” says Breyfogle.
Amid the neatly aligned rows of pinkish beige plastic chairs flanked by hospital staff, attendees of varying ages and affiliations, many of them wearing shirts emblazoned with their respective branches of the military, took turns at the microphone.
Most people, such as Justin Moore of Knoxville, got up to the mic to share how much they appreciated the services they received at the hospital and how individual doctors had helped them along the way.
And while the majority of the evening’s attendees had nothing but praise for the care they received, one of the major trends of the evening revolved around communication issues. Some attendees said they felt as though there was a disconnect in communication between departments in the Department of Veterans Affairs. One attendee cited troubles he had getting prescriptions filled from outside doctors, and another noted that after surgery he felt there was lack of contact between his primary care doctor and himself.
Breyfogle says the VA uses electronic health records, so cases where there is a lack of communication between a patient’s caregivers are usually rare. “Any health care provider that a patient sees can see where they’ve gone, what they’ve done; it’s a very interrelated system,” she says. “Each patient has a primary care team that consists of their doctor, nurses, pharmacists and social worker, so they know exactly who can help them and who they can talk to.”
Subject-area experts were on hand to directly respond to attendees’ concerns and requests on the spot. In one case, an expert even consoled a woman who became emotional, breaking down in tears after speaking about her health care concerns and a possible cancer diagnosis.
“With our veteran population, we try not to overlook anything, because you don’t know where that veteran might be at that point in time, so it is very important to keep that firm touch with them,” says Breyfogle. Each person’s comments and concerns would also be followed up after the meeting, she says.
“I really didn’t hear anything that I wasn’t at least aware of, so to me that means that the staff is doing a super job of listening to veterans, communicating and really thoughtfully raising issues and concerns,” says Breyfogle. “It is the patient that should be in the middle of everything, and we really try to do that here.”
Other attendees, including Candice Matelski, spoke about how they had seen their requested changes implemented and suggested ways of updating hospital communications and pamphlets that might better serve patients.
Citing lack of staff and space as major concerns, a daughter of a VA patient outlined the struggle she and her father had in the oncology department.
“I do agree with her that the oncology clinic is too crowded, and we do have a construction project on the books to move that to a larger area,” says Breyfogle.
But she cites funding concerns as the reason for the delay in moving the project forward.
The Charles George VA Medical Center is ranked No. 1 in the nation for patient satisfaction out of all of the VA’s medical centers.
“We are really pleased with our patient satisfaction rates,” says Breyfogle. “It doesn’t mean everybody is happy every single time, but I really believe strongly that these types of forums are how we stay engaged.”