Suzanne Shirley is a problem solver. She began her time at VA in 2010 as a clinical social worker with the aim of helping veterans solve some of their most complex challenges. Over the years, that goal hasn’t changed – but its impact has changed. Her efforts to improve veteran care have made her a cornerstone of the Veteran’s Health Administration Innovation Ecosystem (VHA IE), helping the Program Office transform the way VA works with internal and external staff to drive innovation in healthcare and accelerate.

Shirley is the Director of Fellowships & Community Engagement at VHA IE and leads the development of a variety of innovative programs that partner and push the boundaries of veteran health care. These internal and external partnerships provide veterans with cutting-edge, accessible care while driving the future of health care itself – all to ultimately transform the lives of veterans and their families, carers, and communities.

“The innovation ecosystem is looking to transform VA service delivery,” said Shirley. “We help internal and external innovators find their way around the organization in order to accelerate innovative healthcare. While our mission in VA is to provide world-class care to veterans, we are funded by tax dollars, and I believe it is our responsibility to drive the transformation of health care for all Americans. “

Shirley believes that no other health organization in the country is as well equipped to accomplish this goal, given that VHA is not only the largest integrated health system in the US, but primarily mission-driven, not profit-driven.

As a VHA IE Fellow, she started the The Initiative to End Diabetic Limb Loss Use of an innovative early warning system that detects diabetic foot ulcers early and enables VA providers to intervene and prevent amputation. Currently the program is running on a national level with thousands of veterans enrolling and growing. This initiative is effective in preventing diabetic limb loss across the country, saving money and demonstrating the power of public-private partnerships in improving care.

When COVID-19 hit, Shirley stepped back into action, developing partnerships to help VA and veterans through the pandemic. A resulting collaboration was between VA and the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, which helped shape this COVID Respite Relief Caregiver Support Program, who donated over 80,000 hours of free home health services to more than 1,600 veteran families as the burden on caregivers increased during the pandemic. Cooperation such as this between non-governmental organizations and VA is an important way with which VHA IE can change the service provision not only for veterans, but also for carers of veteran families.

The collaboration Shirley is working on isn’t just about industrial and non-governmental organizations. Veterans themselves are the key to this transformation. Shirley works to facilitate collaborative partnerships with veterinary service organizations that aim to better understand veterans and improve the lives of an increasingly diverse veteran population. An example of this is a recent joint effort between VHA IE and the Shirley led Art partnership of the armed forces (AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE). The work ASAP does through art programming has been clinically proven to decrease isolation and improve mental health. VA and ASAP are now working together to develop virtual programs for veterans and reach new, at-risk veteran communities across the United States VHA Innovators Network.

For this work and much more, Shirley received the prestige Arthur S. Flemming Award, given to government employees in recognition of outstanding service. Shirley isn’t finished yet, however. Her work through VHA IE continues, where she develops new partnerships that will impact the lives of veterans across the country and the spearhead the VHA IE Innovation Fellowship Program, in which VHA innovation leaders can grow and advance their already successful innovations.

“I am honored to receive the Arthur S. Flemming Award, but the recognition belongs to the entire VHA innovation community and our dedicated partners,” said Shirley. “VHA IE is an impressive team and I am grateful to be a part of it.”

Allison Amrhein is Director of Operations for the VHA Innovators Network and communications manager for the VHA Innovation Ecosystem.