Located in Fayetteville, Arkansas, Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks (VHSO) is one of the leading health systems serving Veterans in the South-Central VA Health Care Network (VISN 16). With a mission to make a positive difference in the lives of Veterans through compassionate, comprehensive, and quality health care, VHSO promotes a community of integrity, respect, stewardship, and excellence. Many of the organization’s leaders and staff have a personal connection to the veteran experience, having served themselves or having loved ones serve. This sense of duty and service to provide the nation’s veterans with exceptional care is more than a common bond. It is the driving force of a team continually seeking to exceed expectations and raise the bar on quality, satisfaction, and high value care.

This mission has led to measurable and sustainable results in quality and safety, Veteran experience and satisfaction, and high value care.

The Starting Point

In 2013 the leadership team at Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks was introduced to the principles of person-centered care through a national directive to improve care for Veterans, staff, and the communities served across the United States. VA-wide initiatives like Whole Health and Patient Aligned Care Teams were already driving the VA toward a more personalized and patient-directed model for healthcare.

“We were hoping to improve the overall perception and culture of the organization, specifically connecting the importance of employee experience and satisfaction to the level of care we provided.”
– Amber Duran, Patient Centered Care Coordinator.

Nonetheless, finding ways to adapt practices and processes to support this more holistic and personalized care experience at VHSO required creative thinking, a willingness to disrupt “business as usual” and deep understanding of the team’s “why.” The goal was to improve Veteran care, satisfaction, and education, while also ensuring that employees were well cared for.

VA of the Ozarks sought out to transform policies and procedures to support reliable, collaborative and person-centered approaches to care. And though they knew their caregivers were delivering high-quality, compassionate, care to their Veterans, they also knew the journey to person-centered excellence is one that they could not take alone. The team quickly saw that Planetree International was aligned with their mission, values, and goals and would be the perfect partner to co-design their journey to excellence. “Planetree offered global expertise, knowledge, and resources to coach us on our journey. The team at Veterans Health Center of the Ozarks is the expert in providing care on the ground, but with over 40 years of experience, Planetree is the true industry expert in person-centered care. Together, we knew that we could make a tremendous impact.” – Amber Duran

A collaborative leadership team began VHSO’s transformation by gaining insight on how the organization operated, and why previous change efforts had not yielded the sustainable results desired in the past. “In the past, leadership would provide solutions without the inclusion for frontline staff or Veterans, and after implementation we were seeing no notable improvement in data,” noted Duran. With this in mind, the facility’s leaders made it a point to actively seek out and incorporate the voices of the staff, Veterans and community members. Veterans began sitting on strategic planning committees, engaging in focus groups, providing ongoing feedback, and were included in decisions being made throughout the medical center.

This involvement included more than asking for feedback, it was a meaningful engagement. Veterans felt heard. Staff felt that their specialized insight into their work areas was honored. And decision-makers felt greater confidence in decisions and future planning that was informed by diverse voices. This inclusion began changing perception, improving trust, and creating a sense of community between the hospital and the Veterans served.

“We are here to help every person, every Veteran. Regardless of whether they got out yesterday, we are here to help and listen. Before Planetree we were struggling with getting feedback from staff and implementing feedback from Veterans. Since implementing Planetree, the Veterans began to have a strong voice in the solutions. From introducing Wi-fi, to LEAN training for veteran and family partners, and modifications to parking and accessibility processes, we have a seat at the table and a voice in the decisions made throughout the hospital.”
– Conrad Baker, Vice Chairman of the Veterans and Families Advisory Council.

Person-Centered Care for Patients and Caregivers

In listening to the voices of veterans, it was clear that each care experience needed to be personalized to meet veterans where they were in their unique care journey. A one-size-fits-all healthcare approach was both not person-centered, and not realistic for the wide geography and demographic served by VHSO. For this reason, the team at VHSO adopted a whole health approach to care, developing personalized health plans based upon each veteran’s values, needs, and goals. These care plans were then uploaded into the MyHealtheVet online platform, enabling ease of access to information for both the veteran and the care team. This care team included more than just the staff at VHSO, but also the family caregivers, who VHSO treats as integral members of the overall care team.

These person-centered practices and technologies quickly yielded positive responses from the veteran community, yet the team at Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks knew that to achieve person-centered excellence, staff had to be active participants in the journey. Upon observing staff, they found that caregivers at all levels were delivering high value, compassionate care. Yet what began to shift throughout the Planetree journey was employee culture.

“One of the first changes I saw was in culture and language. I would say the organization became fluent in person-centered language. This language became a part of each interaction; how we interact with each other as employees and with Veterans,” Duran explained. The VA has implemented full day staff retreats to teach whole health skills, goal setting, and self-care to employees. Along with this, the leadership team at VHSO introduced a Your Voice Matters initiative, making leaders more accessible, expanding opportunities for employee involvement, making staff feel cared for and heard. And their hard work has paid off. The VA has seen a marked improvement in staff engagement and employee satisfaction, directly correlating to improved Veteran care and experience.

Achieving Person-Centered Results

In 2021, Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks began their first assessment for Certification for Excellence in Person-Centered Care. The team achieved Gold Certification, the highest level of excellence, in their first certification cycle.

“To achieve a culture of person-centered excellence, at the gold level, takes everyone in the organization being committed to the process and ‘rowing in the same direction’,” noted Karen Andazola, Associate Director at Planetree International, “From the time I began working with the team at VA of the Ozarks, almost 10 years ago, I knew they had the vision and commitment to accomplish whatever they set as their goal. While there have been leadership changes over the years, the commitment of the staff and Veterans to create an authentic person-centered culture has endured. I could not be prouder of all that this organization has accomplished and the heart that they have shown at every stage of their Planetree journey.”

And this achievement came alongside positive quality and safety, employee engagement, and Veteran satisfaction metrics. VHSO has maintained patient experience and trust & respect scores well above the regional and national averages. Along with this, the medical center was ranked among the 25 best VA’s in the nation in Veteran satisfaction.

These accolades all came while navigating leadership changes and persevering through a global pandemic. “Planetree helped us set our {person-centered} bar, which proved to be incredibly beneficial during the pandemic,” noted Amy Huycke, Associated Director for Patient Care Services and Nursing Executive. “Planetree reinforced the need to connect with our Veterans. We were reminded to listen to the voice of our patients and community, to understand what they want for their care experience, and to do the same with our employees. This helped to carry us through a very challenging time.”

“Gold Certification for Excellence in Person-Centered Care is a source of immense pride for the team at Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks. “Certification [in person-centered care] was personally felt and owned by each employee and Veteran that has been involved. They all say they now feel heard and believe what matters to me as a person is valued,”
– Amber Duran.

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