The VA’s new scheduling tech may trigger hope and fear for health systems

The Veterans Health Administration (VA) has long been on the cutting edge of health technology. From implementing early electronic health record systems to embracing patient record portability, the VA serves as an important vanguard of health tech trends to come for the rest of the sector.

That's why it's interesting to note the VA's latest investment: online patient scheduling. The VA is rolling out a $3.2 million mobile and online patient scheduling platform for more than six million patients at the start of 2017. Initially limited to primary-care, the program will expand to optometry, audiology, and mental health next.

"Do I think this is a huge step forward for the VA? Absolutely. I think this is really, really, really important for us to be able to offer," Dr. Neil Evans, chief of the office of connected care for the Veterans Health Administration told the San Diego Union-Tribune.

This launch addresses a serious criticism the VA faced for not providing veterans speedy access to medical providers. The new scheduling platform will surely address that demand and improve the patient experience. However, solving this patient-side problem is likely to create a new set of headaches for the VA on the supply-side.

The healthcare industry works on atypical economic principles, as those of us in the sector know well. It's not the standard supply and demand paradigm. The fundamental difference is on the supply side.

As a pioneer in providing patient self-service appointment booking, I know that simply posting a public calendar for patients doesn't magically create more appointment times or more physician availability. How frustrating would it be for veterans attempting to book appointments online only to discover their physicians aren't available for weeks or months?

Other factors should also be considered. By opening up patient scheduling, the VA could be headed for increased physician burnout and operation gridlock. Replacing physicians and other professionals is simply too expensive and time consuming.

It is crucial that health systems optimize for both patient appointment access and physician staff schedules at the same time. Sophisticated artificial intelligence technology focused on "combinatorial optimization" now exists that can help solve both sides of healthcare's unique supply and demand issues. By creating smarter physician schedules that utilize expertise and improve patient access, the VA can improve not just the appointment booking process for veterans, but also their ability to get in and see the right doctor earlier.

Richard Fury, MD, is a board-certified family physician with interests in technologies that enhance access, patient engagement, and affordability of healthcare. He is the former director of Kaiser Permanente's Technology Group where he led teams developing applications to enhance physician practices as well as websites for patient access and service. Currently, Dr. Fury serves on Lightning Bolt Solutions' advisory board and devotes his time to practicing urgent care and promoting technology-driven healthcare efficiencies.

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