VA aims to reduce veteran suicide with new predictive technology

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) launched a new program designed to identify veterans who are at risk of suicide. With an average of 20 veterans taking their lives each day, the agency is hoping their efforts will help reduce the number of suicides.

The system is called Recovery Engagement and Coordination for Health — Veterans Enhanced Treatment, or REACH VET. It uses several algorithms to predict suicidal behavior by evaluating 61 variables. Among these are patients’ past suicide attempts, chronic pain, mental illness, recent emergency room visits, clinical history, missed appointments, unfilled prescriptions, and even a rural or urban residence.

According to the VA, the program analyzes data from six million health records to identify patients who are “at a statistically elevated risk for suicide, hospitalization, illness or other adverse outcomes.” Once at-risk veterans are identified, they are contacted by their VA doctors. The program is designed to help vulnerable veterans receive support and treatment even if they are not actively seeking VA care.

Dr. Caitlin Thompson, the VA Office for Suicide Prevention’s national director, said, “Early intervention can lead to better recovery outcomes, lessen the likelihood of challenges becoming crises, and reduce the stress that veterans and their loved ones face.”

VA Secretary David Shulkin described the program as “cutting edge.” However, it remains to be seen how accurate and effective it will prove to be. Department officials said the success of REACH VET will be reflected in a decreased number of veteran suicide attempts.

The program is currently being implemented in 168 VA facilities across the country after its launch in late 2016. The VA is gathering data for statistical tests expected to take place next year.