Program Profile

Implementing Smoking Cessation Telehealth Technologies Within the VHA: Lessons Learned

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Background: Health care systems need to reach patients who are smokers and connect them to evidence-based resources that can help them quit. Telehealth, such as an interactive voice response (IVR) system, may be one solution, but there is no roadmap to develop or implement an IVR system within the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Observations: We describe the development and implemention of IVR at the VA Portland Health Care System in Oregon to proactively reach veterans who use tobacco and connect them with cessation resources. We coordinated with local departments to verify the necessary processes and strategies that are important. We recommend several questions to ask the IVR vendor and be prepared to answer before contract finalization. The Patient Engagement, Tracking, and Long-term Support (PETALS) initiative may be an excellent place to start for VA IVR-related questions and can be used for IVR initiation within the VA, but other vendors will be needed for nonresearch purposes. Finally, we describe the process timeline and steps to help potential users.

Conclusions: IVR systems, once they are developed and implemented, can be efficient, low-cost, resource-nonintensive solutions that can effectively connect patients with needed health care services. Developing an IVR system within the VA was challenging for our research team. We experienced a large learning curve during implementation and hope that our experience and lessons will help VA personnel in the future.



Health care systems need practical, scalable methods to reach patients and connect them to available, evidence-based resources. Ideally, these systems need to be resource nonintensive to deploy, maintain, and use. They should also be low cost, have a relative advantage to the organization, be sensitive to patient needs, use available resources, and have rigorous evidence regarding their effect on patient-centered outcomes.1,2 Phone service is one way to reach people that remains viable. More than 97% of Americans own a cellphone of some kind, and 40% still have a landline.3,4 One intervention that has been increasingly used in routine care settings is an interactive voice response (IVR) system that uses phones for connecting to patients.

IVR systems are a type of telehealth that provides information or adjunct health services through use of a telecommunication platform and information technologies.5 These systems are automated telephone systems that use prerecorded or text-to-speech–generated messages that allow respondents to provide and access information without a live agent.6 Text messaging (SMS) is another modality that can be used to asynchronously engage with participants. IVR systems have been used successfully for many health conditions and services, such as improving veterans’ adherence to continuous positive airway pressure, colorectal cancer screening, and cognitive behavioral therapy.7-10 By building on existing technology and infrastructure, IVR systems can be a cost-effective option for health care system services.

A 2016 Cochrane review of IVR systems for smoking cessation identified 7 studies.11 Although none used opt-out mechanisms (where individuals are automatically enrolled in programs until they decide not to participate) to engage people without an expressed motivation to quit, these interventions seemed safe and were promisingly effective. Among patients enrolled in primary care, a trial of an IVR system led to a higher quit rate: 18% vs 8%.12

In one study, patients in the emergency department, particularly older ones, preferred phone-based interventions over SMS.13 IVR-based proactive tobacco cessation systems are cost-effective and have been successfully used in the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).14,15 IVR systems using opt-out approaches are being studied, though their effectiveness in this setting has not been proven. The pros and cons of different interventions need to be explored since there is likely a tradeoff between feasibility and effectiveness. For example, intensive smoking cessation interventions are more effective but often require more resources to implement and sustain.16 Basing interventions that are not resource intensive within a reputable organizational system may amplify the effectiveness.17

This endeavor to establish an IVR system was initiated as part of our research study, a randomized trial of the Teachable Moment to Opt-Out of Tobacco (TeaM OUT) intervention at the VA Portland Health Care System in Oregon. We measured the reach and effectiveness of a novel, proactive, resource nonintensive, and pragmatic intervention to engage veterans with a recently diagnosed lung nodule who smoke cigarettes.18 Our research team extracted the contact information for patients currently smoking and found to a have a pulmonary nodule from the VA Corporate Data Warehouse.19 We then manually uploaded those data to an IVR website where the system contacted patients to connect them to smoking cessation resources on an opt-out basis. In the research study, we measured the acceptability and effectiveness of the TeaM OUT intervention using quantitative and qualitative methods.

We developed and implemented an IVR system for use at 4 facilities: VA Portland Health Care System, Minneapolis VA Health Care System, Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center (Charleston, NC), and the Baltimore VA Medical Center. Setting up any type of wide-scale technology within the VA can be challenging. Due to our experience in developing and implementing the IVR system in the VA, we share what we have learned about the process of finding, contracting, developing, and implementing an IVR system. We share our experiences with developing and implementing this system to provide guidance for those who may want to establish an IVR system (or similar technologies) within the VA.


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