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FCW : February 2015
and half years before the department formally imple- mented that methodology in the form of a March 2014 memo. When FCW asked Jackie Garrick, acting director of the Defense Suicide Preven- tion Office, why it took so long to implement the new methodology, she said offi- cials needed time to include new data for the National Guard and Reserves and to test large datasets. With that revised methodology, DOD can now compare factors that potentially increase the risk of sui- cide for active-duty and reserve ser- vice members and, in turn, “do more to target our policies and our pro- grams...specific to those different populations,” she said. Perhaps an even more important hurdle for improved data policy will be getting the joint VA/DOD reposi- tory to actually share records, as it is intended to do. Right now, although data from the DODSER database and the VA equivalent is in the joint SDR, Bossarte said it is not being shared back and forth. The repository’s current focus is on mortality, whereas its mandate includes sharing data on possible sui- cides. If one wants to track a recently retired service member, now a veter- an, using the SDR, “you would have to piece the data together, but all of the elements are included that would make that possible,” Bossarte said. DOD and VA officials say they will work in the coming months to reap more from predictive analytics for their suicide-prevention programs. Garrick said the Defense Suicide Prevention Office is tapping into the resources of the Defense Manpower Data Center, the Pentagon’s data hub for military personnel, to turn data into a “predictive lens” to spot suicide risk among service members. As for DODSER, Reger said T2 will seek to implement the IG recommen- dations for improving the database and its management. He added that many of the recommendations were not news to T2 and the agency has been already addressing them. For example, the IG report notes that the software used by DODSER automatically archives a record 180 days after it has been entered and pre- vents it from being updated. The dead- line stems from a regulatory mandate to protect service members’ privacy, Reger said. But that rigidity prompts some DODSER users to submit a report before the medical examiner’s investigation is finished, resulting in incomplete information. “We have already begun coordina- tion of documents to change those regulatory requirements,” Reger said, adding that he expects the change to be made this year. The quality of DODSER submis- sions has improved since September 2013, when T2 began providing feed- back to the services on their submis- sions, according to the IG report. For example, in the third quarter of 2012, “the average DODSER submission for the Army and Navy was less than 70 percent complete,” the report states, but by the first quarter of 2014, “both services had increased to an average of more than 90 percent.” An invisible finish line Improving the quality of data on suicide attempts among service members and veterans will likely be an endless task. Given advances in big-data analytics, improvements will always be possible. As Reger said, “I think the challenge of ensuring the highest quality data that you can will be an ongoing process.” Congress is also playing a part in suicide data policy. Lawmakers have included a provision to improve sui- cide data collection in the $585 bil- lion defense authorization bill for fiscal 2015. The bill tasks DOD with developing “a standard method for col- lecting, reporting and assessing infor- mation regarding” suicide and suicide attempts, something the department has already committed to doing. A critical challenge for DOD, VA and Capitol Hill will be to ensure that too many cooks don’t spoil the broth. All the working groups, task forces and memos in the world will matter little if they do not lead to a drop in suicides. And, of course, improving data is but a piece of policy efforts to prevent military and veteran suicides. More important to the cause is the quality of mental health care that service mem- bers and veterans receive. But data is a window into the prob- lem, and the sharper that view comes into focus, the better off America’s uni- formed and retired military men and women will be. n Analytics 26 February 2015 FCW.COM The point of surveillance is to identify trends so that we can intervene, and we need to make sure that we’re intervening on the right things. — RAJEEV RAMCHAND, RAND CORP. 0215fcw_023-026.indd 26 1/27/15 12:36 PM
March 15, 2015