Advances in Caring for At-Risk Veterans Using New Information Technology Tools

On September 13, LifeWIRE, the Connected Health Initiative, and Health Tech Strategies convened an expert panel to discuss how new information technologies can be used to address and reduce suicide in the United States’ active duty and veteran populations. Panelists included U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Suicide Prevention Office Director Kieta Franklin PhD, IBM Associate Partner for Federal Healthcare Mark Newsome, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Director John Draper PhD, Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Acting Director of Mental Health Services and Suicide Prevention Services David Carroll PhD, LifeWIRE Corporation CEO Howard Rosen, and former Veterans Affairs Chief Consultant for Telehealth Adam Darkins MD, who each shared their thoughts before an audience of congressional staff, federal government policymakers, industry experts, member of the press, medical professionals, academics, and other stakeholders.

Throughout the presentations and policy discussions, a few themes emerged about the role of technology in veteran suicide prevention. Firstly, the panelists agreed that technology alone does not provide a solution to this complex issue. They noted that negative life events, and behaviors that lead to isolation or difficulty coping, are often antecedent indicators of suicide risk. Therefore, though currently at an early stage of research and implementation, social media, “big data,” and data analytics are each promising technologies to identify at-risk individuals. These platforms can help recognize individuals and collect insights to their behavior from qualitative and quantitative data, which makes it easier to target at-risk veterans and active duty military and provide them with a range of evidence-based interventions.

In addition, interagency collaboration, and the introduction of legislation that enables the VA to work with community outreach organizations, is promoting shared learning and the prototyping of new approaches to suicide prevention. This collaboration also outlines the significance of “connectedness” through mobile internet technologies and social media interactions, as well as the benefits from improving interventions using a long-standing technology – the telephone.

Lastly, the panelists found that the ability to successfully use technology-supported methods to identify and offer appropriate interventions to people at risk depends on taking a patient-centered approach, and beginning intervention and prevention as soon as possible. As in the development of other technologies, there must be an iterative design process – in this case involving the clinician, the caregiver, and the veteran – to establish the interpersonal communication and trust upon which the technology’s effectiveness is built. This design approach has been applied to the DoD and VA’s work on app development and the expansion of the VA’s telehealth assets, which ultimately create models of how new approaches to suicide prevention may be taken to scale to address the problem.

At the close of the panel discussion, Representative Jack Bergman (R-MI) encouraged the ongoing development of practical and effective solutions that would secure bipartisan congressional support, and increase the likelihood of implementation.