In 2011, Memphis VA Medical Center chief biomedical engineer Sheena House identified a need to provide independence to spinal cord injury patients and improve their accessibility to communication tools.

House conducted a successful local pilot project involving new environmental control units (ECU) in the spinal cord injury/disorders center.

Soon after, VHA Innovation Ecosystem (VHA IE) got involved to bring House’s vision to life, to bring better quality care to more Veterans.

In the six years following the initial Memphis ECU installation, VA launched the autonoME ECU at 1,000 VA bedsides across the nation. AutonoME provides spinal cord injury patients with the ability to communicate without talking. It enables patients to contact their nurse, control their television, adjust their bed, browse the web and have more independence.

Since these ECU rolled-out, VA reports have a common finding: The ECUs added value by increasing patient independence and social support. Building on its early successes, VA collaboration has advanced the ECUs’ capabilities to provide even greater Veteran care.

Starting with the Veteran

Rather than continuing to use pre-existing software, VHA IE collaborated with autonoME to customize the ECUs for Veteran needs. VA ensured alternative access methods had the least number of patient inputs necessary to communicate. Those methods include eye gaze, sip and puff, and switch scanning.

Staff can outfit and adapt augmentative and alternative communication to each Veteran’s unique health care needs. Additionally, the software introduced a pain grid. That helps non-verbal patients communicate the location of the pain they are experiencing and the discomfort level.

VA has also redesigned the autonoME to be a smaller easy-to-maintain system. VA can now include screens for a better entertainment experience. That makes watching TV, playing games and accessing the internet more enjoyable for Veterans. The team also simplified bed integration with the junction box housed on the wall and easily integrated with technology.

New life for the autonoME ECU hospital system

The latest system gives staff more time to provide clinical care for Veterans throughout the day. They are able to work more efficiently. Also, Veterans can stay in touch with family, enjoy games and use the internet for everyday needs, such as paying bills.

The entire system provides more than just entertainment. There is a learning center for VA specific video and documents, such as the Yes You Can – A Guide to Self-Care for Persons with Spinal Cord Injury by the Paralyzed Veterans of America. Using this center, clinicians can identify and upload documents relevant to a Veteran’s health care.

With this software platform and deployment pipeline, VA can continuously change and adapt solutions as the Veteran’s needs change and as the world changes.

Want to get involved?

Visit VHA IE’s website to learn about opportunities to become involved in innovation at VA.

By Kalyn Essex is a communications officer at the VHA Innovation Ecosystem. She is an Air Force Veteran who served for 12 years, including one Operation Enduring Freedom tour.

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Published on Mar. 4, 2022

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