For 75 years, the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) has provided the highest quality health care to our country’s Veterans. Since the VHA’s inception, partnering with academic medical centers has been a key initiative in the promotion of research, innovation and in the training of new health care professionals to meet the needs of this unique patient population within the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
The partnership dates back to the end of World War II when the VA faced a shortage of physicians to care for the many Veterans returning home with injuries and illnesses, many requiring lifelong care. To meet these needs, VA Policy Memorandum No. 2 was established, and the VA’s affiliation with the nation’s medical schools began.
Regionally, the W.G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center in Salisbury started its partnership with Wake Forest School of Medicine in 1995. The affiliation includes clinical care, residency training and research.
“This academic affiliation brings the best and brightest to Veterans for care,” said Robin Hurley, MD, associate chief of staff for research and academic affairs at the W.G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center and professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine for Wake Forest School of Medicine. “This integrated relationship is crucial to our Veterans who receive comprehensive care and have access to the very latest medical technology, research and specialists.”
As the country’s largest integrated health system, the VHA is dedicated to providing exceptional care at its 1,293 health care facilities, which includes 171 medical centers and 1,112 outpatient sites. Services include traditional hospital-based services such as surgery, critical care, mental health, orthopedics, pharmacy, radiology and physical therapy. Specialty services including audiology and speech pathology, dermatology, dental, geriatrics, neurology, oncology, podiatry, prosthetics, urology, and vision care.
The VA’s commitment to excellent care is apparent in the culture, according to Jimmy Ruiz, MD, associate professor of hematology and oncology at Wake Forest School of Medicine.
“This affiliation has allowed us to enrich our environment, an environment full of teaching, and more importantly, of innovation in the way we take care of cancer patients,” said Ruiz, who is also chief of oncology and director of the oncology clinical trials unit at the W.G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center. “This innovation also stems from clinical trials, allowing Veterans to receive cutting-edge technologies and clinical trials closer to home.”
An Environment of Learning
Through academic partnerships, the W.G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center has residency training in 23 specialties such as primary care, psychiatry, ophthalmology, infectious diseases, dermatology, otolaryngology, urology and general surgery. Since 2008, these programs have experienced rapid growth. In 2020, the Center had 750 trainees in these programs.
Through these residency programs, even experienced physicians benefit from the teaching environment of the VA.
“I think our physicians at VA are better at what they do because they are working in a teaching capacity,” said Randall Gehle, DO, acting chief of staff of the W.G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center. “That to me is the value to VA. When you know that a bright mind is going to be working with you and challenging you in your knowledge base, you’re a better doctor. That’s one of the biggest benefits.”
From an education standpoint, learning in a VA environment is invaluable, according to James Hoekstra, MD, senior vice president and associate dean, clinical and academic network development for Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist, president of High Point Medical Center.
“The academic affiliation with the VA is a synergistic partnership that has flourished,” said Hoekstra. “The relationship has been very beneficial for us and for our Veterans.”