NASEM Calls for Federal Center on Whole Health Innovation

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The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) recommended in a recent report that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) collaborate to create a national Center for Whole Health Innovation.

The center should be charged with supporting, scaling, and spreading whole health care nationally across health systems, as well as with developing policies, practices, and tools to support the adoption and implementation of whole health, the organization said in a statement.

The report examined the VA’s Whole Health System (WHS), as well as other similar whole health systems, and concluded the WHS has demonstrated positive outcomes for veterans’ health, and is one model for whole health delivery that could benefit all people across the country. Starting in 2018, the WHS was implemented in 18 VA sites, focusing on veterans with chronic pain, mental health needs, and disabilities.

According to the report, the WHS uniquely incorporates individuals’ goals and priorities into healthcare decisions, integrating conventional medical care with peer support, coaching, wellbeing courses, and more. Studies show the program has demonstrated positive outcomes for veterans’ pain management and opioid use, with high patient satisfaction. The VA has since expanded the program and the conditions it addresses, and has plans to implement it across the entire VA system by 2027. 

Given the magnitude of change needed to scale and spread whole health nationwide, and the complexity of needs across different populations, the report states only the federal government has the authority and resources to oversee the changes required across sectors. Building on its existing health center program, the Health Resources and Services Administration is well-positioned to lead implementation at the community level. Healthcare systems, community programs, social services, and public health organizations should model their whole health approach after the VA’s and those of other early adopters that have shown initial successes, the report said.   

“If the measure of an effective health care system is whether everyone has the opportunity to be as healthy as possible, then the U.S. is failing,” said committee co-chair Alex Krist, MD, professor of family medicine and population health at Virginia Commonwealth University, in a statement. “The VA’s [WHS] shows the promise of whole health care for veterans across the nation, and we believe it is possible for whole health approaches to be expanded to the rest of the U.S. health care system, with enormous potential benefits for all.”