Suzanne Shirley is a problem solver. She began her time with VA in 2010 as a clinical social worker, with a goal to support Veterans in solving some of their most complex challenges. Over the years that goal hasn’t changed – but her impact has. Through her efforts to improve Veteran care, she has become a foundational pillar for the Veterans Health Administration Innovation Ecosystem (VHA IE), helping lead the program office in transforming the way VA engages with both internal and external collaborators to drive and accelerate health care innovation.
Shirley is the director of Fellowships & Community Engagement at VHA IE, leading the charge in developing a host of innovative programs that are breaking the boundaries of Veteran health care through partnerships. These internal and external partnerships are delivering cutting-edge, accessible care to Veterans while advancing the future of health care itself – all to ultimately bring transformation to the lives of Veterans and their families, caregivers and communities.
“The Innovation Ecosystem strives to transform care delivery in VA,” said Shirley. “We help innovators, both internal and external, navigate the organization to accelerate innovative health care. While our mission in VA is to provide Veterans with best-in-class care, we’re funded through taxpayer dollars, and I believe it’s our responsibility to lead the transformation of health care for all Americans.”
Shirley believes that no other health care organization in the country is as well-equipped to achieve this goal because VHA is not only the largest integrated health care system in the U.S., but is, more importantly, driven by mission and not profit.
As a VHA IE Fellow, she launched the The Initiative to End Diabetic Limb Loss to leverage an innovative early warning system that detects diabetic foot ulcers early and enables VA providers to intervene and prevent amputation. Currently the program operates at a national scale, enrolling thousands of Veterans and growing. This initiative is effectively preventing diabetic limb loss across the country, saving money and proving the power of public/private partnerships in improving care.
When COVID-19 hit, Shirley went into action again, developing partnerships to help VA and Veterans during the pandemic. One resulting collaboration was between VA and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation that co-designed the COVID Respite Relief Caregiver Support Program, which donated over 80,000 hours of free home health care services to more than 1,600 Veteran families when caregiver burden increased during the pandemic. Collaborations like this, between non-government organizations and VA, are a key way that VHA IE can transform care delivery not just for Veterans, but for Veteran family caregivers, too.
The collaborations Shirley works on aren’t just with industry and non-government organizations; Veterans themselves are key to this transformation. Shirley works to enable collaborative partnerships with Veteran Service Organizations geared toward understanding Veterans better and improving the lives of an increasingly diverse Veteran population. One example of this is a recent joint effort Shirley is leading between VHA IE and the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP). The work ASAP is doing through arts programming has been clinically proven to reduce isolation and improve mental health. VA and ASAP are now collaborating to design virtual programming for Veterans and reach new, at-risk Veteran communities through the VHA Innovators Network.
For this work, and much more, Shirley has received the prestigious Arthur S. Flemming Award, awarded to government employees in recognition of outstanding service. However, Shirley isn’t done. Her work through VHA IE continues, where she is developing new partnerships that will impact the lives of Veterans across the country and spearheading the VHA IE Innovation Fellowship Program, in which VHA innovation leaders can grow and advance their already successful innovations.
“I’m honored to be the recipient of the Arthur S. Flemming Award, but the recognition belongs to the entire VHA innovation community and our dedicated partners,” said Shirley. “VHA IE is a formidable team and I’m grateful to be part of it.”
Allison Amrhein is the director of operations for the VHA Innovators Network and communications lead for the VHA Innovation Ecosystem.