VA apps

Mobile apps are key to VA's New Models of Care program

Developing useful apps for smartphones and tablets is a challenge facing every government agency, and the Veterans Affairs Department is no exception. But over at VA, the IT staffs are experimenting with several pilot programs to help integrate developers’ apps into their agency, with the goal of combating an increased workload while providing better care for patients at VA hospitals.

As part of that effort, the VA has released guidelines that allow both individual developers and companies to create new apps and get them reviewed for potential inclusion in the agency's New Models of Care (NMOC) program. The project is designed to allow veterans to be treated at their homes and within their communities instead of having to stay, sometimes for long periods of time, inside a VA facility. VA officials say that mobile technology could be the key to making this effort a success.

"Our ultimate goal is to extend our services to veterans," said Dr. Julia Hoffman of the National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. "Mobile provides an incredible opportunity to reach veterans."

Creating apps that will satisfy the VA’s high standards and stringent requirements isn't easy – and it's not meant to be. The backbone of the app development program states that programs must be robust and performance-centric if they're going to be worthy of going out to users under the Veteran's Affairs brand. But businesses and developers that successfully navigate this gauntlet can find themselves accepted into pilot programs where their program meets the public in specific markets.

In one example, the Family Caregiver Pilot, more than 1,000 Apple iPads were given to families and caregivers of wounded veterans upon their release from hospital care. Developers Agilex and FirstView Federal Technology Solutions, as well as internal VA teams, faced the challenge of developing apps that would allow patients to self-assess and gather data and  use the tablets to communicate information to caregivers from their homes. The developers needed to find a means to integrate the new data into existing VA programs such as the VA Mail Order Pharmacy and the overall medical data storage system used by the agency.

Another challenge to integrating the systems into the broader VA environment is responding to data entered by patients, and creating a means of helping veterans with the challenges they face. Among the apps going under testing is a version of the PTSD Coach program that can assist veterans in coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. To bring this system to market, both the IT managers and the developers – in cooperation with doctors and psychologists – had to use the information from veterans to make recommendations for ways to lower patients' stress levels to get them through the day.

Developers need to be flexible as well. Each pilot program will be in the field for about six months, after which the information gained will be evaluated by IT directors and medical professionals to find out whether the app provided benefits worth the cost of development. If the app passes that examination, developers will then be asked to refine their product using feedback from patients and the VA before it goes back into the field for a full rollout.

Firms and developers interested in bringing apps to the pilot programs can learn the procedure through the department’s VAMobile Development Portal. Companies will need to become familiar with both the software certification process and the VA's Software Development Life Cycle. All developers hoping to work with VA must be willing to follow agile development methodology and the Scrum process.

There are several methods interested companies can use to begin the development process. Which one is right depends on what type of app is being considered for development. The full list of  of ways to the development process is available at the VA's initiation page. Ultimately, it could provide a roadmap for other agencies trying to seamlessly bring mobile apps into their own agencies.

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