Can Big Data Help Curb Veteran Suicide?

Big Data is part of the VA's latest effort to curb veteran suicide.

The statistics are grim.

The risk of suicide is 22% higher among military veterans than it is among the rest of the adult population. For female veterans, the rate is 2.5 times that of other women. That’s 20 veterans taking their lives every day according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which released its latest figures in September.

The VA is working to bring those numbers down, and it has a new tool in its kit: Big Data. Its latest effort is a partnership with the Department of Energy, the aim of which is to mine that data more efficiently and effectively.

Teaming up will allow the VA, with health data for 24 million veterans who have used the VA’s health care system over the last 20 years, to plug into the DOE’s superior computing abilities, VA Secretary David Shulkin said in a release about the initiative.

This, Shulkin said, will give “thousands of researchers access to this unprecedented data resource over time in a secure environment.”

One area of the new initiative uses VA data to identify veterans at risk for self-harm.

MVP-CHAMPION, which stands for the Million Veteran Program (MVP) Computational Health Analytics for Medical Precision to Improve Outcomes Now, takes aims at veteran suicide rates using the VA’s MVP program, launched in 2011.

MVP is the VA’s genomics program and has already enrolled more than 560,000 veterans to provide DNA samples, grant secure access to their electronic health records for it to be used in research and complete surveys about their personal health, lifestyle and military experiences.

The VA-DOE program will use health data from the Department of Defense, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Center for Disease Control’s National Death Index, as well as MVP data and information from the VA’s electronic health records system.

One of the initial studies planned as part of the VA-DOE collaboration is building algorithms that can create an individual veteran’s personalized suicide risk score as well as assess strategies for prevention.

Another VA program, introduced earlier this year, reaches out directly to veterans who are considered high risk.

REACH VET, which stands for Recovery Engagement and Coordination for Health – Veterans Enhanced Treatment, is the result of six years of mining VA and Pentagon data with the goal of targeting veterans who seem to be in the most danger of committing suicide.

Those veterans receive a telephone call telling them that they are believed to be at risk for suicide and offering support.

While getting such a telephone call might be a shock, it often spurs the veteran to face the issue, according to Aaron Eagan, who manages the national REACH VET program. It also assures the vet that he or she is not alone and that help is readily available.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised with how receptive veterans have been to the extra attention,” Eagan told NPR. “The response is generally very positive.”

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