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Veteran Suicide Reduction Relies on Data

Winners of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Mission Daybreak grand challenge point to data’s role in suicide prevention.

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Reducing Veteran Suicide Relies on Innovation, Data
Photo Credit: Dragos Asaftei/Shutterstock

The Department of Veterans Affairs has awarded its $20 million grand challenge — Mission Daybreak — aimed at developing innovations to reduce veteran suicides. Now agency leadership is targeting new data advancements.

“Our veterans need and deserve suicide prevention solutions that meet them where they are, rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, and that’s exactly what Mission Daybreak has delivered,” VA Undersecretary for Health Shereef Elnahal said in a press release. “By drawing on a range of focus areas and life experiences, the Mission Daybreak winners have developed innovations that will save Veterans lives — and there’s nothing more important than that.”

Through Mission Daybreak, awardees like Stop Soldier Suicide, Televeda, ReflexAI, Sentinel, Battle Buddy, Even Health, NeuroFlow, Overwatch Project, OxfordVR and Team Guidehouse will use funding to create programs and develop technology solutions for suicide prevention and other forms of mental health support.

Mission Daybreak aligns with VA’s broader strategy to end veteran suicide, which is grounded in three core principles, VA Executive Director of Suicide Prevention Matthew Miller told reporters during a media roundtable Tuesday.

“First, suicide is preventable. Second, suicide prevention will require a public health approach. Third, everyone has a role to play within suicide prevention. Because we believe that suicide prevention will require a public health approach, we approach suicide from four fronts: clinical, community, research and innovations, and policy,” Miller said. “At the intersection of these four fronts, where the rubber hits the road, you find Mission Daybreak. In sum, Mission Daybreak is a vehicle that brings clinical, community, policy and research backgrounds and contexts into innovation; then, redeploys innovation back into clinical, community, policy and research settings across the nation and around the world.”

While Mission Daybreak marks an important step forward for suicide prevention at VA, the agency still faces challenges, especially when leveraging data. VA has increased its focus on synthetic data, which is generated health care information that accurately mimics real-world conditions impacting veterans to help “train” computers to identify risk, tailor recommended treatments and engage care as early as possible, without compromising data privacy.

Synthetic data could help clarify ongoing veteran challenges to then enable VA to make meaningful changes, but there are still challenges around data policy hindering its use. The VA currently doesn’t have synthetic data policies, which obstructs attempts to standardize and use synthetic data across the enterprise.

“There is no government agency or academic agency that I’m aware of that has a standardized policy or process for utilization of synthetic data,” VA’s Director of Data and Analytics Innovation Amanda Lienau told GovCIO Media & Research. “Over the course of this next fiscal year, we’re working within the VA and have within our fiscal year strategy plan to execute a synthetic data handbook.”

The handbook will include a synthetic data policy outlining conditions of use to determine how VA could indicate high-quality synthetic data and more. VA plans to collaborate with other government agencies to help articulate a code of conduct for synthetic data use. VA is also focusing on data literacy as it builds out strategies around synthetic data.

“For any complex data set, there is a learning curve. Within the VA Data Governance Council and the VHA Data Governance Council, there are efforts to create data catalog and self-service resources to allow users to better meaningfully interpret and make use of VA datasets,” Lienau added.

Moving forward, VA will also focus on the impact of digital life data to include data from wearables or data from online sources to better access, analyze and understand veteran health.

“That is early stage, however. We’re not in the space where we’re going to make an immediate impact, but it’s worth deep exploration and innovation, as well as working with other federal partners like the Defense Department,” Lienau said. “There’s active efforts, both in the research and innovation space, to work with the DOD, as well as other federal agencies like the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), to better understand from good quality data sources, how might we better predict and segment populations to provide high quality, tailored services for veterans.”

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