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VA Pittsburgh Creates First Dialysis Program for Long-Term Care Unit

Computer dialysis machine.
A dialysis machine in VA Pittsburgh's H.J. Heinz III campus community living center is ready for a Veteran patient. The machines are easy and safe for patients to use without assistance.

VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System in April created a dialysis program at its community living center (CLC) to safeguard Veterans against exposure to the coronavirus.

The CLC-based dialysis program is the first of of its kind among VA's 170 medical centers nationwide. It eliminates the need for Veterans in long-term care at the CLC to travel across town to the health care system's dialysis center at the University Drive Campus. 

Staff had discussed the idea previously, but in late March began exploring ways to turn the idea into a reality as soon as possible.

“Within days, we submitted an equipment proposal and leadership approved it,” said Dr. Paul Palevsky, chief of VA Pittsburgh’s renal section. “We submitted the order on a Friday and the machines were delivered that next Monday.”

The dialysis machines chosen are specifically designed for disasters and home use. They’re easy and safe for patients to use without clinical help, making them perfect for Veterans living in the CLC on VA Pittsburgh’s H.J. Heinz III campus in O’Hara Township.

“We did this for patient safety,” said Marlene Van Buskirk, dialysis nurse manager. “There shouldn’t be any reason Veterans have to go out for dialysis, especially with the statewide stay-at-home order.”

Seven patients received dialysis on the first day of operation in April, and the program has since expanded to nine patients. Depending on each Veteran’s needs, some patients dialyze in their rooms and others in designated areas.

Patients receive the same level of care they would receive in the main dialysis unit at University Drive. VA Pittsburgh nephrologists, or kidney specialists, provide a face-to-face visit once per week and are available daily through telehealth.

“I can’t tell you how fabulous the staff have been,” said Van Buskirk. “It has been a whirlwind. Everybody’s on edge. It’s exciting and people are really stepping up to the plate to make things work.”

The new dialysis unit is also more convenient for Veterans – especially in winter – and saves on transportation costs. When VA drivers are unavailable, for instance, the cost for non-VA transportation services is $1,000 per round trip, said Van Buskirk.

Palevsky sent plans to another VA medical center so it can develop a similar solution for its own patients.

“Kudos to all the staff who are responsible for the remarkable feat of standing up this program in less than four weeks and to the entire dialysis unit staff,” said Palevsky.

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