The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is the single largest provider of medical care to people with HIV in the United States. Dr. Puja Van Epps supports this work in her role directing the Infectious Diseases Outpatient Clinic at the VA Northeast Ohio Healthcare System. Dr. Van Epps treats Veterans living with HIV, trains new physicians and conducts research into HIV prevention. She also serves on the VA HIV Prevention Work Group and the National VA Technical Advisory Committee on HIV. She says that working at VA provides an opportunity to both see patients and pursue a robust academic career.
In this installment of our #ChooseVALeadership Careers blog series, Dr. Van Epps explains why she chose to pursue employment at VA and why she thinks the comradery, collaboration and other attributes of her career make VA a truly great place to work.
What is your primary job at VA?
I oversee the HIV primary care clinic. I take care of Veterans with HIV, supervise residents and fellows in clinic, and oversee the day-to-day clinic function. I am also responsible for designing and promoting education and quality initiatives specific to HIV for trainees, clinic staff and VA providers. I also serve on the National VA Technical Advisory Committee and the HIV Prevention Workgroup.
In the past couple of years my research focus has been in HIV prevention, particularly related to using prophylactic medications. I work closely with the HIV, Hepatitis and Related Conditions (HHRC) Office to improve HIV care and infectious disease prevention at VA.
How long have you been in this particular job?
I have been on staff for five years and in my current leadership position since last year.
Describe your areas of specialty and how you use these skills to provide care to Veterans.
My area of specialty is HIV care and prevention. I provide specialty HIV care and primary care to Veterans in northeast Ohio. I also provide HIV prevention to Veterans at risk of HIV. And lastly, I educate other providers in HIV care and prevention. One way we do this is physician-to-physician teleconferencing (using SCAN Echo technology) to link providers with Veterans who have difficulty accessing care.
What was appealing about a career at VA?
My favorite part about working at VA is the people I work with. VA tends to attract not only talented people from all fields of medicine, but also people who genuinely care about their work and the Veterans they care for. This leads to a very collaborative environment. I know that if I have a question about a challenging case, I can simply walk down the hall and get advice from specialists who will always give me a thoughtful answer based on the latest evidence. Over the years I have also had the opportunity to connect with other brilliant and skilled people working in HIV at other VA facilities. Being able to exchange ideas with such a variety of people from all over the country has been a true gift.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding part of my job is when I can give hope and restore health to a Veteran who is fearful of their HIV diagnosis or has suffered grave consequences because of this disease. I cannot put into words the feeling when you see a patient who was suffering from AIDS and weighed less than 100 pounds walk into the clinic looking robust and happy. The fear that once was in their eyes disappears and you just know that they will be okay. It never gets old. Especially for our Veterans, who have sacrificed so much for our nation, it is very important to be able to give them something as meaningful back as their health.
I also find broader public health implications of the work that we do in both treating and preventing HIV to be very fulfilling. I often think about the fact that by treating someone in our clinic for HIV or giving someone medicine to prevent new HIV, we prevent even more infections in the community. This kind of work at the community level is what will ultimately end the epidemic of HIV. At VA, I also have the opportunity to participate in nationwide research and quality improvement programs to improve HIV care on a population level. I mention this because those outside VA may not be aware of the tremendous contributions to research and human health that VA has made over the years.
How has VA helped you grow in your career?
I have been very lucky to have had great leadership support from the very beginning. The supportive culture of a place starts at the top and the Cleveland VA is no exception. Dr. Robert A. Bonomo, the Chief of the Medical Service, has been supportive of my career goals since I was a trainee here, and I can truly say without his support I would not have ended up where I am today. I have had other great mentors over the years, both scientific and career mentors, such as Drs. David Canaday and Usha Stiefel, both of whom are revered in our VA. They have all collectively supported any educational or mentoring activity that they felt would benefit me.
What are a few key benefits of working at VA?
VA retirement benefits are very attractive, particularly for people who are thinking about lifelong VA careers. I have two small children and use the child care subsides. It is nice to have these key benefits.
What story do you most often tell people about your work?
I often tell people that VA is a leader in patient care and research. They don’t have to take my word for it — they can look at the evidence. For example, the HIV Care Continuum is a series of treatment steps from HIV diagnosis through successful treatment of the infection. The goal is to get as many people as possible diagnosed and into care, and then started on medication and virally suppressed. Compared with the nation’s healthcare system as a whole, data show VA has had more success in moving Veteran patients through the HIV care continuum. And this is just one example. I am very proud to work here!
What would you tell other healthcare professionals who are interested in choosing a career at VA?
It is truly a fantastic place to work. This is a place where you can find a great mix of both a meaningful and stimulating academic environment and clinical work where the focus can be Veterans’ health rather than revenue. The comradery and collaboration make this a truly great place to work.
Choose VA today