Durham VA improving veteran care with upgraded facilities

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Health officials hosted a tour Wednesday of the main medical center in Durham (WTVD)

Doctors and administrators at the Durham VA are praising the progress they've made in improving patient experience, as a congressional commission's report shows "profound deficiencies" persist within the Dept. of Veterans Affairs.

The Durham VA serves nearly 70,000 veterans at its nine sites spanning 27 counties.

DeAnne Seekins, Medical Center Director, did not want to comment on the Commission on Care's report until President Obama releases his assessment, but said due to a number of improvements being made at the facility, they're providing better care now than they were two years ago.

"Our veterans are at the center of everything that we do," said Seekins.

The VA wait-time scandal of 2014 revealed the Durham VA Hospital had one of the worst wait times in the country. Seekins said whereas two years ago a veteran seeking primary care had to wait about 40 days to see a doctor, that's now been cut to six days.

Among the improvements made over the last two years is a newly-renovated Emergency Department which increased the number of patient rooms from 10 to 27. With that, a first for the Durham VA: a Psychiatric Emergency Care Unit, serving patients with acute mental health needs.

The center's medical intensive care unit underwent a cosmetic remodeling that doctors say improves the patient experience. The MICU staff said they're also developing a better, more proactive monitoring program of patients outside of the MICU, tracking their vitals and bringing them in before their condition worsens.

Another upgrade to the facility is a $5.6 million state-of-the-art cardiac cath lab. Doctors are leading the nation and training Duke interns, residents and fellows in a cutting edge heart catheterization procedure sometimes performed same-day.

Doctors say going through the wrist instead of a patient's groin is not only safer, but faster.

"In fact the recovery is so fast that many of our patients, even after we do a procedure like a heart stent, prefer to go home," said Dr. Sunil Rao, Dir. of Cardiology. "If we can get the patients to recover faster we can actually take care of more patients."

Seeing more patients in less time is a good thing for the Durham VA, gaining 10,000 new patients every year. However, Seekins is desperate for Congress to approve a new 200,000 square-foot facility in Raleigh that will allow them to provide quality care to a booming veteran population.

"The healthcare center in Raleigh, we truly need that," said Seekins. "We need that so that we can continue to decompress and have veterans not have to drive into the Durham campus when they live closer to the Raleigh area."

Doctors said the high demand shows veterans are still choosing to come to the VA for healthcare, but physicians and administrators alike are still working to regain their trust.

"The VA is not the enemy of our patients," said Dr. David Simel, Chief of Medicine. "We want the best possible outcomes for our patients. They've earned the right to be here."

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