VA looking at ‘smart home’ tech to keep aging, disabled vets living independently

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With an aging veteran population, the Department of Veterans Affairs is giving older veterans more tools to live independently in their homes.

The VA is looking at how smart home technologies and wearables like smartwatches could flag when aging and disabled veterans are having a medical emergency.

Joseph Ronzio, VA’s deputy chief health technology officer, said the department is also taking steps to ensure veterans have a stay in who gets this data, and how it may be used.

“Everyone nowadays has some smartness in their home, whether it’s a speaker, whether it’s light switches, whether it’s different types of lights or other physical devices — cameras, motion detectors that leave a digital service,” Ronzio said during a Federal News Network-moderated panel discussion at ATARC’s DevSecOps Summit.

“Most of the time we’re not able to access that digital footprint because it’s kept in a cloud service or a cloud system, and that’s masking to us what’s going on,” he added. “We’ve been able to implement some technologies that have actually been able to unmask it, and then evaluate what is the best kind of healthy and then start detecting where there’s problems.”

This use case hits close to home for VA’s tech leadership. VA’s Chief Health Technology Officer Craig Luigart is a disabled veteran.

Ronzio said Luigart’s Apple Watch has saved his life “multiple times already,” by alerting family members when he’s experienced a medical emergency — and that the same technology can help veterans continue to live in their own homes.

“As we look more and more towards our veteran population who are aging in place and look at the need for skilled nursing beds and skilled nursing facilities over the long haul, or nursing homes, there’s definitely a need for this capability to be refined and developed,” Ronzio said.

The VA pays for disability modifications to veterans’ houses and provides veterans with accessible equipment.

“We are providing those sensors and those technologies. Now we just have to peel the onion on this and start building better algorithms to detect and share that data with caregivers – whether that’s a spouse, whether that’s a child, whether it’s a loved one, whether it’s a friend of the family,” Ronzio said.

As VA continues to develop this project, Ronzio said veterans get to decide who they wish to share data and alerts with, so that that person can support them.

“Everyone always talks about sending data to VA, but we are not ambulance crews, we’re not 9-1-1,” he said. “We need to interact with family members. Having this data available to the family, so that they can understand if that patient’s at a dehydration risk, [or] a fall risk, having mobility challenges, needs to go through advanced rehab — that they can live a happier and healthier life within their home, instead of being put off into a skilled nursing facility or even hospice at a time.”

Ronzio said veterans will always have a say in how their personal data is used.

“Having those data controls in place is tremendously important. From my perspective, I wouldn’t want all of my home data, all of my sleep data, all of my stuff, getting out there to anyone,” he said.

“As we talked about smart homes, my goal has always been to keep the data local to the person’s house. I don’t even want people sharing their data 100% with their medical staff. If you have a problem, we would be pushing out analytics that your devices can analyze your data with. And once you hit a tripwire or you hit a concern, you can select that you just want to share it with your loved ones,” he explained.

Meanwhile, the VA is setting up a Digital Health Office.

“This realignment is going to align a lot of virtual, a lot of AI, and a lot of technologies that typically had responsibilities in other places, into one area,” Ronzio said.

The creation of the Digital Health Office, he added, will impact the reporting structure of several hundred officials within the VA’s Central Office.

“It’s a major change to the organization. They’re moving a lot of different arms of VA under a Digital Health Officer. We have actings and interims in these positions right now for all the senior executives, so we’re still trying to figure out what this is really going to mean for the workforce,” Ronzio said.

VA’s Office of Information and Technology will remain its own separate entity, but Ronzio said the Digital Health Office will allow for greater collaboration with OIT.

“I’m hoping that we can actually improve the speed and efficiency of OIT’s processes to have secure systems rolled out. I’d anticipate that we can save some time just by having our internal communication. But if we can actually develop better relationships with OIT, this will have the potential to have dramatic results,” he said.

“Some of my projects in the past have taken two or three years to manifest. Now that we have access to people in our own organization and have more communication at the undersecretary level and above for digital health, this should actually speed up our iteration and speed up our ability to produce something,” he added.

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