Telehealth Video Technology Is Helping the VA Reach More Vets

In a demonstration of the Telehealth process at Fort Campbell's Blanchfield Army Community Hospital, clinical staff nurse Lt. Maxx P. Mamula examines mock patient Master Sgt. Jason H. Alexander using a digital external ocular camera. (U.S. Army photo/Gigail Cureton)
In a demonstration of the Telehealth process at Fort Campbell's Blanchfield Army Community Hospital, clinical staff nurse Lt. Maxx P. Mamula examines mock patient Master Sgt. Jason H. Alexander using a digital external ocular camera. (U.S. Army photo/Gigail Cureton)

Dr. Richard Stone is executive-in-charge of the Veterans Health Administration.

The Department of Veterans Affairs is at the forefront of digital medical technology innovation. The VA has pioneered telehealth, and recent advances in providing telehealth services have made it the largest telehealth program in the country.

For the first time ever, the VA surpassed more than one million annual video telehealth patient visits last fiscal year. More than 393,000 veterans are using video technology to monitor their prescriptions at home, check in with their primary-care teams, and consult with specialists hundreds of miles away.

More than 780,000 veterans used one of the VA's three telehealth features during more than 2.2 million interactions with more than 900 VA sites to access clinical care in more than 50 medical specialties.

But telehealth's success is about more than numbers. It's about the delivery of better medical services to our veterans -- like Jim Doray, who suffered a spinal injury in 2013. His condition requires regular checkups with his VA provider. Prior to receiving telehealth care, he and his wife, Paulina, had to drive 65 miles each way from their home in the mountains outside San Diego to their closest VA facility in La Jolla. They made the drive several times a week, not including additional appointments or trips to the pharmacy to pick up prescriptions.

It was Jim and Paulina's dream to build a home in the mountains, not to spend countless hours preparing for, driving to, and attending medical appointments. Many veterans find themselves in similar situations in rural communities across America. The need to deliver to our veterans more convenient, efficient and personalized health care and to easily include caregivers in these health care sessions was the driving force behind our efforts to expand telehealth visits.

In August 2017, the VA announced its Anywhere to Anywhere initiative, pledging to give veterans unprecedented access to care, no matter where they are in the United States. The announcement was paired with the launch of the VA Video Connect app, which allows patients to participate in virtual appointments remotely with their providers. More than 100,000 virtual appointments have been conducted to date.

The enactment of the Mission Act in June 2018 set the stage for further initiatives. The law strengthens the VA's legal authority to provide clinical services by telehealth to veterans in rural or underserved areas of the country, even across state lines. It helps move care outside VA facilities and into veterans' homes via their computers and mobile devices. It strengthens the VA's ability to recruit the best health care providers in urban centers and ensures that veterans in rural or remote locations are matched with the right provider at the right time.

This flexibility is especially important in supporting rural communities with specialist medical services. A growing number of telehealth hubs across the country now offer primary, mental health, and specialty care services. It is our goal to have all VA primary care and mental health clinicians telehealth-capable by the end of fiscal 2020.

One of the challenges we still face is securing equal access to telehealth services for millions of veterans nationwide. Many veterans in rural areas do not have reliable access to broadband Internet. The VA is committed to bridging that digital divide by seeking partnerships with the private sector to help us reach these communities.

The new partnerships announced at the December 2018 Anywhere to Anywhere, Together Summit will go a long way toward helping the VA meet our strategic initiatives. The projects vary from creating telehealth clinics for veterans inside rural retail stores to providing free data usage for veterans' telehealth video visits. The goal of each partnership is the same: to make VA quality care more accessible and convenient for veterans.

A well-networked and modern digital VA will not only improve veterans' care, but also positively influence how the United States approaches health care. We are proud to be on the cutting edge of bringing 21st-century innovation to our patients, and we take seriously the mantle of responsibility that it entails.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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