Veterans who live in rural areas have experienced difficulty over the years in getting medical treatment that’s convenient.
The VA Video Connect program addresses that issue by enabling the health care provider and veteran to meet face-to-face by way of a smart phone, computer or tablet.
Casey Durham, a psychologist the VA Austin Clinic, spends three days of her five-day work week using Video Connect to see patients.
The Austin clinic is one of the largest VA outpatient clinics in the country, Durham said.
A mission of the VA for several years has been to increase veterans’ access to mental and physical medical care, and Video Connect is one of the ways to connect with veterans who live in hard-to-reach areas.
The Central Texas Veterans Health Care System area of service covers 35,243 square miles in 39 counties.
The technology that makes Video Connect possible has been adopted whole heartedly by veterans living in rural areas, but is also popular in places such as Austin, where commutes can be anxiety inducing as well as lengthy in respect to time.
Veterans living in urban and suburban areas are using Video Connect because they are full-time stay-at-home parents who don’t have family or friends who can stay with the kids while the parent spends an hour traveling each way for an appointment.
“If I see them on telehealth, they can schedule appointments around their children’s naps and still have access to needed services,” Durham said. “It provides flexibility to veterans who aren’t living in rural areas.”
The video appointments are welcomed by veterans who have mobility issues, and those who are working full time and can’t take three hours off work, she said. The employed veteran might be able to take an early or late lunch and keep the appointment with their doctor in an empty conference room.
“Being more accessible has done a tremendous amount of good and veterans realize the VA has gone above and beyond in its effort to connect with them to meet their needs,” Durham said.
Since 2018, 432 providers within the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System successfully used virtual capabilities — telehealth and VA Video Connect — to connect with veterans to address their health concerns, according to Deborah Meyer, public information officer for the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System. The providers include nurses, pharmacists, nutritionists, blind rehab staff, physical medicine, rehabilitation staff and others.
Veterans who live 30 minutes away from a VA provider can opt out of the VA care and seek community care.
The community care physicians aren’t likely located under one roof, making collaboration between providers difficult.
As a psychologist, Durham said, her understanding of a veteran’s service informs treatments. A physician in the community wouldn’t likely know the impact of military service on an individual.
Also, if one of her patients mentions they have a question for his or her primary care physician, Durham can get that message to the doctor.
The veteran determines what medical care they want to receive via Video Connect.
Durham said she has veterans she sees via telehealth, but also sees them in person if they are part of a group she meets with at the clinic.
Video Connect hasn’t changed the structure of Durham’s day, but it has resulted in fewer cancelations.
Even patients who don’t receive their medical care through telehealth have used it when some unforeseen incident has made getting to the clinic a problem.
For people who are living with significant depression, mobility issues or chronic pain, which many veterans struggle with, providing an alternative is helpful.
Minimizing barriers is always a benefit, she said.
“We want to get people outside, moving around and socializing with other people, because we know that’s good for mental and physical health,” Durham said. “But first we have to meet people where they are.”
Durham said people can use the video feature on their phone for the appointments but she recommends using the biggest screen available.
“It optimizes the experience and is more likely to feel like the provider and the patient are in the same room,” she said.
The VA values veterans, Durham said, and is always looking at ways to better reach and connect with them.
Those veterans who have difficulty getting to VA clinics for care for whatever reason — mobility problems, caring for children or elderly parents, or working full time — need to talk openly with their medical providers about the things that get in the way of getting to their medical appointments.
Check and see if your physician is willing to provide care through Video Connect, Durham said.
VA providers want to be the choice for our veterans, she said.
“The bottom line is that teleheath is meeting the veterans where they are,” Dr. Leonie Heyworth, a VA clinician who served as a telehealth advisor to primary care, said in a VA publication.”We’re making things flexible and convenient to them.”
Durham said she sees 15 to 20 veterans a week using Video Connect.