IDAHO FALLS —Just in time for Veteran’s Day, a new U.S Department of Veterans Affairs clinic is preparing to begin accepting patients in Idaho Falls.
Located at 640 Woodruff Ave. in Idaho Falls, the Idaho Falls Outreach Clinic has three times the capacity of the previous location and offers several new benefits to meet the high demand from the area’s veterans.
“We had the largest demand for patients to get into VA care in Idaho Falls. We had a waitlist of folks that we couldn’t get into the clinic,” Tim Huhtala said. Huhtala is the regional head of primary care services for the Veterans Affairs and oversees all the clinics in the Salt Lake City region.
Around 850 veterans are enrolled in care programs at the clinic on 17th Street in Ammon, and another 736 veterans are on the waiting list to receive care. The Ammon clinic will close once the new location is opened and fully operational.
Idaho Falls is the second city in the region to have an updated clinic built, after a similar one was built in Pocatello last year. Huhtala explained that the new design for all the clinics in the area was, surprisingly, inspired by the layout of Disney World.
“When you go to Disney World, your experience is immersive. There are no janitors or electricians running around to distract from that,” he said.
The design of the VA clinics is meant to imitate that experience by making the clinics as streamlined and direct for the veterans as possible. Patients arriving for a scheduled appointment can be taken into rooms before they even sit down in the waiting area. Unscheduled arrivals will check in at electronic kiosks and possibly see a nurse almost as quickly.
Once the patients are taken back to the exam rooms, they will rarely have to leave it to receive medical services. Instead of moving between doctor’s offices for every step of their care, patients will stay in their exam room while the doctors and nurses come to them.
“There are no dedicated offices. The teams all sit close together so they are able to collaborate on the patients and have quick conversations about their needs,” said assistant engineer Michael Bohls, who helped design the new VA facilities in Idaho Falls and Pocatello.
Those teams are the new standard for care at veterans clinics across the country. The Patient Aligned Care Team, or PACT, consists of four members — a primary care physician, nurse practitioner, clinical associate and scheduler — who work closely together to better coordinate patient care. The teams are based on the system used for at-home medical care and are meant to be more consistent for the patients.
Even though the care teams are often responsible for managing the cases of up to a thousand veterans, VA officials said the system allows for more intimate help for the veterans under their care.
“They know about you personally and they know about you medically,” Huhtala said.
The VA says the new location will be capable of handling up to 3,000 patients when fully staffed with patient aligned care teams. The health teams will sit together at a block of desks in the central area of the clinic, able to immediately share information between themselves and keep an eye on all of the exam rooms at once. The clinic has already hired a second physician, with the goal to eventually have three or four care teams on site to handle the veterans care.
The clinic’s technology is also a significant upgrade from what was available at the previous location. Patients will have exam tables with heated seats and a wide range of mobility, along with other cutting-edge medical equipment. For the team members in the back, their desks can raise and lower electronically and the computers have dual monitors to show more information at once.
Some of the new technology connects the Idaho Falls clinic to the regional VA system. A “telehealth” system of monitors and cameras connects the clinic to the regional VA office, allowing patients to meet remotely with doctors and specialists who can see their vital information in real time.
“The nurse can put a stethoscope on your chest and it could be transmitted to a cardiologist in Salt Lake City,” Huhtala said.
The new facility also marks the first time that a mental health expert will be on site in the Idaho Falls clinic to help patients struggling with post-traumatic stress and other issues. Previously, psychiatrists had either called in remotely for appointments or patients had to travel hours to meet them. District commander of the VFW Bob Akins said that these mental services were essential for some of the veterans in the region.
“I am trying to help my fellow veterans here. They really need help and the VA helps us very well,” Akins said.
Bohls says the VA plans to eventually undergo similar changes at all of the other clinics in the region. Plans are already in place to update the clinics in Orem and Ogden, Utah, next year and eventually all the clinics will end up looking and operating almost identically.
“We are cookie stamping every one of these clinics,” Bohls said.
The clinical staff and patient aligned care teams will begin moving into the new location on Monday to prepare for the opening. To avoid having a gap in services during the move, the Ammon clinic is operating from a “mobile caravan” of offices until the new clinic can officially open. Soon after, the clinic hopes to begin moving more patients off the waiting list and into the VA system.
Veterans can begin receiving care at the Idaho Falls Outreach Clinic on Tuesday or call it at 208-522-2922. The VA will be hosting an official grand opening ceremony at 11 a.m. Dec. 6.