VA building up its telehealth capabilities
By LEO SHANE III | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 30, 2013
WASHINGTON — Today, a veteran can see a specialist for post-traumatic stress disorder treatment without leaving the comfort of his home.
Veterans Affairs officials wish more would.
VA health leaders showed off a wide range of remote medical offerings Tuesday at their first Connected Health Showcase, an event designed to highlight telehealth advances but also tout the department’s place as a leader in cutting-edge health care delivery.
Dr. Robert Petzel, VA undersecretary for health, said the goal is to increase both outreach for veterans not in the system and access for patients already receiving care.
Programs launched in recent months include sharing electronic medical record access for veterans’ home caregivers, prosthetic check-ups via online conferencing, and a host of counseling appointments available to veterans through their personal computers.
Petzel said one veteran currently receiving PTSD counseling now managed to significantly drop his stress level and improve his progress just by skipping the 45-minute drive to his therapist’s office, thanks to recently available online sessions.
“This is going to be the way we do business,” Petzel said. “This is the way medicine is going to be delivered.”
About 1 million veterans already use some type of VA telehealth offering. Petzel said he hopes to boost that number to more than 4 million — about two-thirds of veterans receiving some VA health care — in years to come.
It’s both a financial and practical move by the department. For veterans in rural areas, the online health offerings eliminate the need for some multi-hour drives to the nearest VA centers. For the VA, it’s a chance to reach those patients without building more facilities or relocating staff to those remote locations.
But Petzel said no veterans are being forced into the off-site options to cut down on in-person costs. Rather, its part of the VA’s larger mission to meet veterans “when and where we’re needed, not where it’s convenient for us.” Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, was on hand for the event and praised the VA as a model for health systems throughout the country.
The moves come as VA and the Defense Department are under increasing fire for the lack of a seamless electronic health record for separating troops, despite years of promises on the issue.
Officials from both agencies have promised dramatically improved records sharing by the end of this year, but lawmakers are skeptical that the long-term plans of separate but compatible health records systems will ultimately benefit troops and veterans.
But Sanders said the VA’s embrace of remote care options shows the department is on track to modernize and expand the way it cares for veterans.
“The idea that you can be at home and have contact with a number of high-quality providers is revolutionary,” Sanders said. “Many Americans don’t know a whole lot about VA health care, but they should.”
Contractors at Tuesday’s event said VA is ahead of much of private industry on remote care offerings, in part because of the size and scope of the population they face. Petzel said he expects those options to become even more numerous in coming years, as VA continues to try and reach even more veterans.
Dr. Robert A. Petzel, VA Undersecretary for Health (foreground), chats via video-conferencing technology during a telemedicine technology exhibit at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on July 30, 2013.
C.J. LIN/STARS AND STRIPES