Telehealth Technology Is Increasingly Important to U.S. Veterans

With the largest telehealth program in the world, the Department of Veterans Affairs is making quick use of the latest mobile health care technology, particularly in rural areas. Experts highlighted the VA's telehealth potential at a subcommittee meeting of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on June 24.

With a large distance separating U.S. veterans from the proper medical care they need, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) is a major adopter of mobile health technology. The House Veterans Affairs Health Subcommittee held a hearing on June 24 in which military officers and health care IT experts discussed the latest innovations in telehealth and how they could be implemented by the VA.

Telehealth incorporates a number of different technologies that allow doctors and patients to communicate and send medical information back and forth over long distances using telecommunications, whether it's videoconferencing, e-mail, texting or phone conversations.

Since 40 percent of veterans live in rural areas and have difficulty getting to a VA hospital, as Rep. Gus M. Bilirakis (R-Fla.) noted in his remarks at the hearing, the discussion focused on how telemedicine can help vets living in these regions.

According to Bilirakis, with 144 VA medical centers and 350 VA outpatient clinics in communities, "VA operates the largest telehealth program in the world."

"VA certainly is a recognized leader in using electronic health records, telehealth and telemedicine," said Rep. Michael H. Michaud (D-Maine), chairman of the Subcommittee on Health.

"For most veterans, their care would take place at a VA hospital, so if they live a long ways away, it makes it difficult to get there, and telemedicine gives them access to physicians that otherwise might be difficult to reach," said Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies and director, Center for Technology Innovation, The Brookings Institution and author of "Digital Medicine: Health Care in the Internet Era."

"It's just more convenient for them to get medical care that way as opposed to having to drive one or two hours," West told eWEEK.

For the three million veterans living in rural areas, access to health care remains a key barrier, as they simply live too far away from the nearest VA medical center, Michaud wrote in a statement. This means that rural veterans cannot see a doctor or a health care worker to receive the care that they need when they need it, leading to worse health outcomes among rural veterans compared to the general population.

Gail Graham, a deputy chief officer for health information management at the VA, described the latest wireless technologies the department is using, including VA's electronic health records database, My HealtheVet, which services more than 1 million users and accounts for 14.5 percent of VA patients, she said.

"As a complement to traditional health care services, the My HealtheVet PHR provides veterans with personal online access to VA health care, featuring patient-friendly health education information and wellness reminders for preventive care, to enhance patient engagement and informed decision making," Graham said at the hearing.

My HealtheVet has received more than 40 million visits, according to Graham. The portal provides health education information and wellness reminders for preventive care to enhance patient engagement and informed decision making, she noted.

VA dental providers also use wireless technology to run software such as Lexi-Comp, which provides access to dentistry-specific pharmacology and clinical information on mobile devices, Graham noted.

The government has shown a committee to creating electronic health records for veterans.

In April 2009, President Obama said military e-health records would "represent a huge step toward modernizing the way health care is delivered and benefits are administered for our nation's veterans. It would cut through red tape and reduce the number of administrative mistakes."

Col. Ronald Poropatich, deputy director of the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Centerfor the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, also testified about the Army's use of the mCare mobile Web portal, a secure, bidirectional messaging system that allows information to be sent daily to a service members mobile phone.

"The U.S. Army recognizes that mobile devices represent an enormous opportunity for health care outreach, not only within the active duty and dependent population, but also within the global community," Poropatich said at the hearing.

Poropatich noted that as mobile devices pass PCs in user preference for communication, mobile applications are being developed for clinical consultation, patient and provider education, research, biosurveillance and disease management.