16 July 2021

A Step Forward to Improved VA Care Coordination for Our Veterans

An interview with Geneva-Jonas Scholar Lisa Perla, PhD


Lisa Perla, PhD earned her doctoral degree in 2021 because she felt the call to support America’s veterans after the events of September 11, 2001. At the time Dr. Perla was a neuroscience coordinator when an opportunity became available at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the biggest integrated healthcare enterprise in the nation. Her sense of duty for veterans propelled her to find ways to make the VA a place where veterans would continue to receive the best quality care possible.

Dr. Perla has a diverse nursing background, with clinical and managerial experience in ear, nose, and throat (ENT), transplantation, and intensive care unit (ICU) nursing. In her current position as the National Polytrauma Coordinator at VA Central Office, she leads case managers who care for veterans with polytrauma. Polytrauma is defined as injuries to multiple body parts and organ systems, specifically including traumatic brain injury. These patients can have difficulties with memory and speech, as well as functional problems, and their VA case managers serve an important role in helping them get the needed healthcare to optimize their recovery and independence.

As a clinical nurse stepping into a national role, Dr. Perla realized that she wanted to improve upon her administrative skills. “If you are a good clinician, you are often promoted into positions because of those skills and can feel overwhelmed as a novice when learning to merge policy with research outcomes,” states Dr. Perla. “This challenge is what first drove me to obtain additional knowledge and my nursing PhD and ultimately pursue a critical research question for Veterans in VA.”

Creating Effective Care Coordination for Veterans

Recent results of VA Patient Satisfaction Surveys showed that veterans were dissatisfied with care coordination across the VA system. With over 1,700 medical facilitates across the U.S., Dr. Perla knew that it would be a massive undertaking to address this issue. While the VA developed a variety of programs to meet specific needs in care coordination, “the programs do not necessarily integrate veteran services across programs because it is such a big enterprise.” Dr. Perla became interested in studying this problem with the Polytrauma System of Care in mind and a care coordination program that worked very effectively across more than 110 facilities nationwide.

Focused Research on a Practical Need

Dr. Perla considers her nursing career diverse and her research approach to the VA care coordination problem was, likewise, unique to any previous study. Dr. Perla’s doctoral dissertation focused on a leadership framework used in the military training of medical students. This idea was generated from her daily responsibilities at the VA; however, it was quite a challenge considering the enormity of the VA and the responsibility to our nation’s most vulnerable heroes. She set out to understand how to provide better patient care coordination by studying the leadership elements of case managers across the country.

In her dissertation titled “Assessment of Veterans Affairs Case Management Leadership,” among significant conclusions in her three-phased study, Dr. Perla’s research indicated that additional training would be beneficial for both nurses and social work case managers in targeted aspects of leadership.  One aspect of the study measured the leadership element of Character and showed that the targeted trainings the VA currently offers with this focus may be beneficial. In addition, she discovered that social workers were less satisfied and more burned out in their jobs than nurses.

Future Direction

Dr. Perla indicated, she looks forward to “digging deeper” into these results by conducting individualized or focus group qualitative interviews with social workers in particular. “I want to be a champion for them because the work they do is really important,” says Dr. Perla. “I would like to contribute to their overall sense of satisfaction in the work they do, which begins through open dialogue and discussion.”

A Duty to Serve

“Veterans get the best quality healthcare in the VA, and I believe everyone that works at the VA cares about Veterans,” expresses Dr. Perla. “Nurses and social workers also deeply understand why veterans come to the VA. Veterans are going to sit in a waiting room next to a fellow veteran, someone who truly understands what they’ve been through while deployed and since coming home. This opportunity is not offered in civilian clinical settings. We have a duty to make this a place veterans want to come to for their physical and social healthcare needs.”

The Geneva-Jonas Scholarship gave Dr. Perla the opportunity to not only provide care coordination and leadership insights for her employer but to also serve veterans in a role where she felt she could make a difference. The scholarship also provided her with the opportunity to receive a certification in case management. This, in turn, gave her the ability to take the clinical training experience she already had and apply it to her administrative and research goals.

Our veterans deserve the best care. It takes someone like Dr. Lisa Perla that will go above and beyond the responsibilities of her job and step into a new journey in her free time, pursuing a doctoral degree to uncover challenges and solutions. The Geneva-Jonas Scholarship is proud to support nursing researchers with high potential in veterans’ healthcare by addressing our nation’s most pressing healthcare needs.

About the Geneva-Jonas Scholarship

In 2016, Geneva and Jonas Philanthropies partnered to create a joint scholarship that funds doctoral candidates seeking to improve healthcare for veterans and military personnel. Geneva-Jonas Scholars are among 330 scholars in the Jonas Nursing and Veterans Healthcare Program – all of whom are at the frontlines of medical, emotional, psychological, and rehabilitative care for U.S. veterans. Geneva-Jonas Scholars join an elite group of over 1,250 Jonas Scholars in all 50 states.