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VA Sunshine Healthcare Network


VISN 8 Clinical Contact Center Wins National Award

Photo of Suzanne M. Klinker, Deputy Network Director for Clinical Contact Center, and Theresa Mont, Chief Nurse, VISN 8 Clinical Contact Center

Suzanne M. Klinker, Deputy Network Director for Clinical Contact Center, and Theresa Mont, Chief Nurse, VISN 8 Clinical Contact Center, formally accept the VHA HeRO Award at the VISN 8 Network Office in St. Petersburg, Fla. on September 18.

By Jason W. Dangel, Deputy Communication Manager, VISN 8
Friday, September 18, 2020
ST PETERSBURG, FL – About 14 months ago, the VA Sunshine Healthcare Network (VISN 8) launched its Clinical Contact Center – a 24/7 virtual urgent care service available to Veterans enrolled for VA health care in Florida, South Georgia, Puerto Rico, and the Caribbean.

Leaders touted the new center as a major innovation in VA, not only because of its ability to provide convenient, around-the-clock care for Veterans, but also due to the agile and highly reliable service the center would soon provide for hundreds of thousands of patients in need.   

On Sept. 18, the VISN 8 Clinical Contact Center was recognized nationally during the Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) HeRO Awards Ceremony for advancing VHA’s journey to high reliability through demonstration of the administration’s High Reliability Organization (HRO) principles.

The center was nominated in the category of “Clinical Team from a VISN or VA Medical Center,” one of five national HeRO award categories, primarily for the center’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. The VISN 8 Clinical Contact Center was one of 11 teams recognized during the ceremony.

“Even during these unpredictable times and the COVID-19 response, these recipients responded swiftly and efficiently to ensure that VHA delivers the best care available to our Veterans,” said VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “From developing new entry procedures to manufacturing personal protective equipment to staying in touch with Veterans, VA staff are handling the pandemic quickly and creatively.”

According to Suzanne Klinker, Deputy Network Director for Clinical Contact Center, VISN 8, there was an immediate need to decrease the number of traditional face-to-face appointments at the various medical centers and clinics across the network to mitigate the infection and spread of the virus.

“Our network was well positioned to respond to COVID-19 with the Clinical Contact Center and the high-caliber clinical and administrative professionals we employ,” she said.

The Clinical Contact Center was quickly identified to safely triage and deliver virtual urgent care for Veterans suspected to have COVID-19 and became the primary method of which Veterans were screened for the virus across the network.

During the months of March and April alone, Clinical Contact Center nurses provided care to nearly 63,000 Veterans, and approximately 3,200 appointments were completed by the center’s team of doctors and advanced registered nurse practitioners. 

During this same time period, about 3,000 of the callers reported symptoms consistent with COVID-19. Any Veteran who was identified as a possible case was referred to emergency room care, and prompt contact was made to the receiving VA or community ED by the triage nurse about the patient arriving with COVID-19 concerns. This practice continues today.

Patient experience surveys of Veterans who were served by the Clinical Contact Center during the peak of the pandemic demonstrated high satisfaction with most Veterans reporting their issues to be resolved by the center without the need for follow up.

“The patient satisfaction we have been able to achieve is a true testament to the awesome professionals who make up the team and their commitment to high reliability and delivering an experience Veterans deserve,” said Theresa Mont, Chief Nurse, VISN 8 Clinical Contact Center.

“Our dedicated staff were able to dig in and go above and beyond to support the mission all while integrating multiple protocol and workplace changes and managing their own personal affairs. We are all very proud of what we have been able to achieve together,” she said.

VHA’s High Reliability Organization Journey

VHA’s journey to becoming an HRO officially started in February 2019 at the HRO Leadership summit held at the Orlando VA Medical Center. 

The two-day Summit brought together leadership from 18 medical facilities selected to lead VHA’s HRO journey, along with VISN and Central Office Leaders. Attendees had the opportunity to learn what it means to become an HRO and how a strong culture of safety will positively impact Veterans, their family members, and caregivers.

The HRO concept was pioneered in industries like aviation and nuclear power, that were able to reduce accidents in their complex environments. Research shows high reliability organizations experience fewer accidents despite being high-risk environments where small errors can produce catastrophic results. HROs put procedures and protocols in place that maximize safety and minimize harm.

By striving for high reliability in a workplace where harm prevention and process improvement are second nature to all employees, VHA aims to improve the way care is delivered to Veterans.  The HeRO awards program is just one way VHA is recognizing facilities, teams, and individuals for demonstrating their commitment to HRO principles.

A photo of Ruth Banilbo, RN, VISN 8 Clinical Contact Center

Ruth Banilbo, RN, works out of one of the VISN 8 Clinical Contact Center hubs in Orlando, Fla. Banilbo is one of about 200 employees who work for the center.

The Gold Standard

The VISN 8 Clinical Contact Center has been labeled by VHA as the “gold standard” for virtual urgent care delivery in VA.

Officially launched in July 2019, the center has handled about 710,000 contacts from Veterans seeking urgent care services from the comfort of their home or wherever they may be. 

Veterans enrolled for VA Health Care in VISN 8’s service area, which includes Florida, South Georgia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, can make contact with the center by calling 1-877-741-3400 or by using the VA Health Chat App – a secure mobile app available for both Android and IOS devices.

Services provided by the center include general administrative support, nurse triage, pharmacy, and virtual visits with a doctor or nurse practitioner via telephone, VA Video Connect (a secure video conferencing application), or VA Health Chat.

In July of this year, the center expanded its pharmacy function by adding a robust pharmacy contact center that Veterans can contact for things like medication questions, refills and renewals, and prescription status and tracking.  In less than two months of operation, the pharmacy contact center has handled nearly 60,000 calls.  Veterans can contact the pharmacy contact center by dialing the primary Clinical Contact Center phone number and following the prompts.

The Future of the Clinical Contact Center

According to VISN 8 leaders, the future of the Clinical Contact Center is bright as the services provided continue to evolve and improve to best serve the needs of America’s Veterans.

The same sentiment is shared by leaders at the national level as they have made clinical contact modernization across the country a top priority based on the VISN 8 model.

“Prior to the launch of the center, we sat down together and discussed best practices in VA and outside VA, what works, what doesn’t, and how we wanted our center to function relative to the mission and the unique needs of Veterans,” said Dr. Miguel Lapuz, Network Director, VISN 8.

“When we brought everything together – the talent, technology, and processes – we knew we had something special that would positively impact the lives of patients. The VISN 8 Clinical Contact Center has truly set the standard for virtual urgent care delivery that Veterans rely on daily for fast, efficient, safe, and highly reliable care.”


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