National Surveillance Tool assesses readiness across VA’s health system


A new reporting tool allows VHA leadership to monitor its national COVID-19 case load, hospital staffing, bed and supply availability in real-time.

Called the National Surveillance Tool (NST), the tool brings together information from dozens of different publicly available internal and external databases to provide an unprecedented view of the battlefield in the war against COVID-19.

The tool’s databases can display the number of positive cases in a community or in a region, and with customizable view options, VA staff can see all the elements necessary to run their health care systems from a strategic, operational, or tactical perspective.

“Readiness is all about surveillance,” said Katherine Wallace, Pharm. D., VA’s Director of Biosurveillance. “It allows us to better provide VA employees with what they need to care for our nation’s Veterans.”

Putting it together

Long before the novel coronavirus emerged, VA’s National Infectious Disease Services were already working to track biological events. From there, the NST came to fruition in just a few short weeks, and quickly expanded to include a number of offices throughout VA.

Tami Box, Ph.D., Director of the Clinical Systems Development and Evaluation (CSDE), began brainstorming how VHA could expand this tool to respond to the coming pandemic and what existing resources and experts in VA she could tap for help.

Each office brought multiple data sources to the table. The challenge was bringing them to life in one platform with graphical displays specific to various audiences, from leadership to the field.

As the tool was coming together, the team needed involvement from regional and national offices to make sure the data also met their needs in predicting and preparing for COVID-19 surges and re-opening of VA medical facilities.

Rooted in High-Reliability Organization (HRO) Principles

“To me, this tool is all about HRO, particularly the leadership commitment,” said Dr. Joel Roos, Assistant Deputy Under Secretary for Quality, Safety, and Value.As a leader, the most important job is to make sure your patients and staff are cared for, ensuring they have everything they need to provide high quality care.”

To do this, employees needed reliable, real-time data. This is where Box came in, meeting individually with staff at facilities who are on the frontlines of data collection. They walked through patient lists and talked through definitions of case status and how they could understand inventory levels to make sure they align with the tool.

But the tool needed to also reduce field reporting requirements, not increase them.

The NST allows data to be put in once at the field level, then it flows into the various National Surveillance Tool views and required tracking reports at the state and national levels. This removes those requirements from the field so they can continue focusing on patient care.

“It’s like being at the top of a mountain with a really powerful telescope,” said Dr. Joe Francis, Chief Improvement & Analytics Officer at the Reporting, Analytics, Performance, Improvement and Deployment (RAPID) office.

“You can see everything from how many beds you have in a region to how many ventilators or PPE [personal protective equipment] are in an individual hospital,” Roos added.

A public view of this powerful tool is available on the VA COVID-19 National Summary webpage.


Donna Stratford

Donna is a public affairs specialist in Veterans Benefits Administration Corporate Communications. She spent most of her career in government public affairs and communications. She recently completed Rating Veterans Service Representative training. Donna is an Air Force Veteran and retired from the Air Force Reserve.

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