WASHINGTON — Traveling long distances to health clinics presents one of the biggest obstacles to military veterans in rural areas seeking and sticking with therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder.
A new study released Thursday suggests that telemedicine aids their access to care and increases the likelihood they will follow through with months of intensive counseling that can heal war’s inner wounds.
The year-long study, published online in the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry and funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs, examined 265 veterans with severe PTSD who live in rural settings.
One group of participants received counseling from behavioral health clinicians through interactive video and phone calls. Members in a second group could seek in-person care at VA medical centers and outpatient clinics run by the Veterans Health Administration.
A team of researchers found that those counseled via remote methods were eight times as likely to complete at least eight sessions of cognitive processing therapy, considered the minimum “therapeutic dose” for treating post-traumatic stress disorder. The same group showed greater improvement in their symptoms for PTSD and depression.
The researchers, who included Dr. Paula Schnurr, acting executive director of the VA’s National Center for PTSD, concluded that the need to travel long distances “likely discouraged” veterans in the second group from engaging in counseling.
Based on the results, the researchers described telemedicine as a “promising model” for counseling former servicemembers in rural areas.
The survey, while small in scale, offers one possible solution for easing the burden on a VA system overwhelmed by demand for mental health services.
More than 1.3 million veterans received behavioral health care at the VA’s nearly 1,000 hospitals and clinics in 2012, an increase of almost 400,000 from six years earlier.
An estimated 20 percent to 30 percent of the 2.6 million troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and overall, 22 veterans commit suicide every day nationwide.
The lack of VA facilities in rural areas has spurred the agency to send out so-called “choice cards” to 670,000 veterans who live more than 40 miles from a VA hospital or clinic. The cards, mailed this month, cover medical costs of former military members who seek care at local hospitals.
The VA also plans to develop a cellphone app that will enable veterans to schedule appointments. Agency officials expect the app and an overhauled scheduling system to become available over the next two years.