Your appointment starts in a few minutes but you’re still racing toward the VA medical center. Even if you manage to hit every green light, you’ll barely make the scheduled time. Luckily, the building comes into view and you breathe a sigh of relief. That is, until you spend precious time circling the parking lot for an open space as the scheduled appointment comes close to being canceled.
Many Veterans can relate to that scenario. As we’ve seen on this blog, Veterans have a variety of opinions, but they typically agree on one thing: Parking is a serious issue at many hospitals, and it’s one that can negatively impact care. When we asked Veterans what they think of parking on our Facebook page, we received over 200 responses that shared a similar thread:
You have to get there at least an extra 45 minutes on top of the extra time you allotted yourself to get to your appointment just to find a place to park.
You have to get there an hour early or you will be late for your appointment. Even valet shuts down due to max capacity.
Getting tired of parking in the grass. I sometimes dread going to the VA because the parking is so bad.
It’s always hard to find a place. We have to drive around in the parking lot until someone leaves.
It takes me longer to find parking than to drive there from my home, 45 miles away. I now leave an hour and a half early and I’m still frequently late for my appointment.
A few Vets had positive comments about their local facility’s parking situation, but most of the responses were negative. How have we gotten to this point? And can it be fixed?
Changes to city plans and modes of care
A major hurdle to parking expansion can be traced to urbanization over the last few decades. Hospitals built in the past tended to be away from other buildings and structures, but that empty space has since been filled, which limits construction opportunities. Put simply, growth in urban areas has landlocked hospitals to a point where expansion can not only be difficult, but in many cases, impossible. Parking lots and garages fill an incredible amount of acreage, and what exists today was an appropriate amount for the time the hospitals were built. Since then, wars and drafts have spurred the consequence of unexpected burden—one that is hard to solve now.
Another reason for the rise in parking demand comes from a transformation in medical care itself. Until the last few decades, the inpatient model of care was standard practice. Many people stayed in hospitals overnight even for common ailments, and often they were dropped off by a family member instead of parking for days or even weeks. With technological advancements in medicine, outpatient care has become a lot more common. There were 75 million outpatient visits to VA last year, with only 680,000 inpatient admissions. While it’s more efficient and costs less, it means people drive themselves to the hospital more frequently and stay for hours at a time. Traffic simply does not circulate the same way in an outpatient model of care, which puts more demand on a limited supply of parking.
Possible solutions to the parking dilemma
Depending on the medical center, parking can turn into a serious problem that prevents care and causes undue stress for Veterans. Some cannot wait years for new construction projects to begin, so there are a couple of solutions Veterans can try right now. Telehealth technology can help reduce on-site appointments by offering routine health screenings and doctor visits from the Veteran’s home using video conferencing and remote-based equipment. For example, if a patient has diabetes, he or she might not necessarily need to come in for every appointment or question. A simple video teleconference call can connect him or her to a doctor without a visit to the hospital. This model simply changes the location of where a Veteran can access care. The benefit of a hospital with one more on-site appointment means another parking spot remains open. Check out this video to learn more about telehealth, and if it’s something you’d be interested in, discuss it with your doctor.
Another solution comes by way of community based outpatient clinics. The original idea behind CBOCs was to boost access to care closer to where people lived, which may not be near a VA medical center. While there are 152 VA Medical Centers across the country, there are 800 CBOCs nationwide that offer primary and mental health care. These clinics are more common than medical centers and offer services relevant to most Veterans. The more Veterans who use these clinics, the more medical centers can free up over-burdened parking lots. If the parking at your local medical center is unacceptable, consider a nearby outpatient clinic.
Valet parking has been introduced at some facilities to help cut down on the wait for open spaces. The Atlanta VA Medical Center even incentivized employees to park away from the facility or use mass transportation. This is a solution that can be duplicated at any facility. Ask your patient advocate if a similar thing is done at the hospital you visit.
VA has taken the hard lessons from past construction planners. At new hospitals, construction requires significant parking facilities to meet current and projected demand. Retrofitted facilities have also taken the increased demand into account and ensure plans include ample parking space. Those planners could have hardly anticipated urban expansion or a new way to deliver medicine, but it’s now taken very seriously when new hospitals go up.
Even though decades-old city planning and changing concepts of care are nearly unalterable problems, that doesn’t mean Veterans circling the parking lot, missing appointments or walking a long distance are acceptable consequences. If there are chronic problems with parking at your local facility, let your hospital’s leadership know it’s an issue (and continue to let us know here and on Facebook).
Though it’s a complex problem, most folks in VA who deal with parking congestion understand it can be a potential barrier to care, and new construction on lots and structures are always in a development or planning stage. Still, those solutions may be years down the line. Use of telehealth technology and community based clinics can help create solutions now so you don’t have to wait, or miss your next appointment.