One of the country’s largest telemedicine programs is run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. In fact, just last year, approximately 700,000 veterans accessed advice and medical care via their computers and mobile devices. On Thursday, President Trump announced that the VA is drastically expanding that program with the launch of a new tool called VA Video Connect, which will be able to reach every VA hospital throughout the country.
The new tool is a collaboration between the VA and the White House’s American Office of Innovation run by senior adviser Jared Kushner. It will offer veterans access to doctors from more than 50 specialties, ranging from dermatology to dentistry. But most importantly, the program will have a special focus on providing mental health services to veterans, particularly in rural locations where such services aren’t as easily accessible.
Now, VA video will be offered by 300 medical providers at 67 VA hospitals and clinics across the country, with plans to expand the tool already in the works.
“As all of us begin to feel more comfortable with technology and incorporating it … into how we get healthcare, I think, is just a natural extension of that,” VA Secretary David Shulkin told reporters just before the announcement.
Scandals regarding the VA’s inept care and inefficiencies plagued the Obama administration, which did spearhead an effort to modernize the VA and deal with its dangerously long backlogs of patients. That initiative, launched by then-President Obama in 2014, was called the United States Digital Service. As a tech startup within the White House, the USDS created tools to help veterans formally appeal decisions made about their healthcare benefits and started the portal calledwhere veterans could apply for healthcare and check the status of their claims.
In June, Shulkin announced the VA would adopt the same electronic health records the Department of Defense uses to eliminate confusion once active duty service people transition to the veteran health system.
Telemedicine has been booming, and the expansion of the VA’s telehealth program takes advantage of new technology, making all patients more comfortable communicating with their doctors digitally. In addition, technology advances now enable the private transfer of medical records and test results, which is particularly helpful in the field of mental health and in rural areas. According to a recent study by Harvard Medical School and the RAND Corporation, between 2004 and 2014, the number of telemedicine visits for mental health services grew 45.1 percent annually.
“Our results highlight the growing importance of telemedicine in the treatment of mental health disorders in rural settings where access to mental health care is often problematic,” said Ateev Mehrotra, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School.
The number of people seeking telehealth services is likely to get “much, much higher” as VA Video rolls out, said Shulkin, although there are still questions about how this program will work for older veterans living in rural areas who may not be as familiar with mobile technology or have access to the broadband capabilities essential to using telehealth.
“Rural connectivity is something that’s of critical priority and importance to the Trump administration and to Congressional leadership as well,” said Reed Cordish, assistant to the President for intragovernmental and technology initiatives, on Thursday. “To help address that we’re making it a priority item within our infrastructure package that will be transmitted to Congress later this year.”
In addition to the VA Video tool, the VA is rolling out an app called the Veteran’s Appointment Request, which allows veterans to schedule appointments with VA providers through their smartphones. Shulkin cautions, “This does not put them at the front of the queue,” referring to that scandalously long, dangerous list of veterans waiting for care.
This week the Senate approved a $3.9 billion emergency spending package to help the department deal with that backlogged list, and Shulkin acknowledged that some VA hospitals and clinics are “still struggling” in terms of long wait times. However, the VA Video tool is designed to let doctors working in big hospitals to treat patients in places with fewer medical providers.
The new VA Video Connect application is supposed to connect Veterans with their health care team from anywhere, using encryption to ensure a secure and private session, according to the White House.
VA Video Connect is now being used by more than 250 VA providers across the country and will be available to all VA facilities by October 2017.
A free app lets veterans access VA Video Connect on Apple mobile devices, which can be downloaded from the App Store.
Together, veterans and their health care providers can decide whether to use VA Video Connect for a medical visit. Veterans should be able to start scheduling appointments on VA Video Connect after the implementation date.
According to President Trump as he announced this “historical breakthrough” in a press conference on Thursday, stating,”This will significantly expand access to care, especially for those who need help in the area of mental health, which is a bigger and bigger request and also in suicide prevention. It will make a tremendous difference to veterans in rural location in particular.”
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 3, 2017