VA Introduces “Life Story” Component To Electronic Medical Records


The VA is experimenting with a new “life story” component to its medical record that attempts to capture a narrative story of who each patient is, told in the first person, as a supplement to the traditionally condition-focused patient record. The new initiative is being piloted at the VA Medical Center in Madison, WI.

The program, called “My Life, My Story,” was initially launched in 2013 to help veterans describe the events that contributed to their medical conditions in a controlled environment. Previously, and at most other VA Medical Centers, veterans are often asked to recount the sometimes troubling memories that go along with their injuries. twenty-six-year old Army veteran Jennifer Sluga explains, “I’ve had so many different primary care doctors through the VA over the years. Even if you do get asked about your story, you get tired of telling it over and over. You hold back information. With this interview, I get it out and it’s in the record. I don’t have to talk about the hard stuff if I don’t want to.”

Now, patient encounters begin with a one-hour session with a trained therapist who comes to the room to have a face-to-face session with the veteran and records their life story, from childhood, through their military service, and the years following. The story is reviewed by the veteran, additional details are added if needed, and then the document is saved in the medical record for anyone on the care team to review. VA therapist Thor Ringler explains, “The next person who reads it will be your doctor, or maybe your nurse, or your respiratory therapist, or any other member of your medical team. It gives them a glimpse of who you really are, all the different things in your life that formed you, as well as the events and circumstances that brought you here to the Madison VA.”

The program was launched by VA psychiatrist Eileen Ahearn who noticed that in the VA setting, a patient’s story plays a more critical role in the care provided than other medical facilities, but this information was not being collected by doctors. The problem, she says, is that doctors do not have time to listen to each patient’s life story, but they do have time to read over a one-page note in the patient chart. By putting a organizational process in place to capture and record that information, and storing it in the chart, doctors are now more familiar with each patient’s history before they treat them.

While the program launched with just a single therapist recording narrative histories, Madison’s VA now has 16 volunteers from the community taking time out of their lives to come in and sit with veterans to fill this need.

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