Igniting innovation to tackle a historic pandemic

… of its employees within America’s largest integrated health care system in the country, VHA IE engages employees to design and diffuse innovation.

Innovation within VA is not a new concept. The pacemaker (above), nicotine patch, bar coding for medication administration and many other Veteran and public lifesaving breakthroughs have origins within VA.

Accelerated use of employee-driven innovation and private/public innovative partnerships are also no longer new concepts within the department. This is due, in part, to the VHA Innovation Ecosystem (VHA IE).

Utilizing the vast accumulated experience and immense passion of its employees within America’s largest integrated health care system in the country, VHA IE engages employees to design and diffuse innovation. We also collaborate with the external innovation community to solidify partnerships that save Veterans’ lives and fulfill VA’s Fourth Mission, namely, to improve the nation’s preparedness for response in national emergencies.

In 2020, COVID-19 changed all our lives. While much of the world crawled to a standstill in March 2020, VHA IE and partners were revving up.

VA Dr. Beth Ripley and 3D kidney model.

On a Fourth Mission with 3D printing

In 2017, VA invested initially in 3D printing as part of an employee-focused innovation competition that supports early-stage ideation. What started as piloting 3D printing for pre-surgical planning in one VA medical center grew rapidly. In three years, we had built a 3D printing infrastructure within 30+ VA facilities across the country. And we offered our 3D printing engineers and teams the experience and organizational knowledge they needed to be successful.

We were ready for a big leap forward. In March 2020, the time came to transform 3D printing to augment supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) so VA employees and their families could be protected from exposure to COVID-19.

We had the people, processes and technology to deploy 3D printing to meet critical needs in record time. Those needs included shields, masks and, now, nasal swabs. In short, our ability to move expeditiously is a direct result of investing in people and establishing infrastructure that can be adapted to system priorities.

Nearing one million PPE designs

Not only has the 3D printing response to COVID-19 impacted VA, but also the prototyping and testing of PPE and swab designs in coordination with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has helped VA fulfill its Fourth Mission.

In March 2020, VA entered a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the FDA and NIH 3D Print Exchange to share data and coordinate on open-source medical products for the COVID-19 response.

VA and fellow partners also entered an MOU with America Makes to provide resources that will connect health care providers and 3D printing organizations to fill necessary gaps in needs.

Together with NIH, FDA and America Makes, VA’s 3D Printing Network team has tested 33 PPE designs optimized for clinical use and 28 designs optimized for the community. We have rallied makers across the country to submit 685 total submissions to the NIH 3D Print Exchange for review.

The actual printed product count, according to America Makes, is nearing 1 million. That includes 348,361 non-N95 masks and 540,470 face shields.

VA’s 3D printing response to COVID-19 and partnerships has protected VA employees and saved Veterans’ lives.

COVID-19 Maker Challenge events

In April 2020, we partnered with a Veteran nonprofit, Challenge America, to host a series of make-a-thon events, aptly named the COVID-19 Maker Challenge, to rally federal agencies, private industry, leading research universities and nonprofits to rapidly design innovative solutions to challenges identified directly by essential workers on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic.

Handheld tool for custodial workers sanitizes surfaces each time it retracts to minimize touching hotspots.

During each COVID-19 Maker Challenge event, diverse teams engaged in a week of rapid prototype design. Those teams included stakeholders from VA, academia, engineers, makers and private sector partners. At each closing ceremony, solutions were presented and judged for different awards.

Prototypes designed during these events have ranged from a handheld tool for custodial workers featuring a retractable door-opening and touch point device sanitizes surfaces each time it retracts to minimize touching hotspots. Another was a tessellated UV-C light box to almost instantly clean large objects. There was also a portable parallel bar device which enables physical therapy to be done in a patient’s room.

The camaraderie and excitement these events fostered is fantastic, as are the solutions themselves. But how do we further the designs? Test the solutions? Put those solutions in the hands of those who need them?

Follow-up after each event is quick

Some solutions are being shopped to venture capitalists for funding. Others are added to the NIH 3D Printing Exchange for immediate availability. Other solutions are gathering further design feedback and are being piloted within VA facilities. With the help of so many partners, VHA IE has no doubt risen to the challenge of COVID-19.

During this unprecedented time, VA has answered with powerful examples of how innovation can save lives and renew hope.

We are extremely proud of this work and hope you’ll join us Oct. 27-29 to soak-up the excitement of innovation at VA during the 2020 VHA Innovation Experience.

Thank you to the countless individuals and organizations whose innovative work and dedication have impacted and saved lives throughout the fight against COVID-19.

This blog recently appeared on the American College of Healthcare Executives blog.


Dr. Carolyn Clancy is deputy under secretary for Discovery, Education and Affiliate Networks for the Veterans Health Administration. Dr. Ryan Vega is executive director of the Veterans Health Administration Innovation Ecosystem.