Telehealth expands Veteran access to healthcare.


As a divided nation braced itself for the final months of the Civil War, President Lincoln made a unifying promise "To care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.”

Today, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) remains committed to that promise, operating the country’s largest integrated healthcare system—providing care at 1,255 healthcare facilities, including 170 medical centers and 1,074 outpatient sites, and serving 9 million enrolled Veterans each year.

To fuel ongoing innovation and meet the increasing demand for patient-centered care, the VA looks to partners in both public and private sectors. So when it came to piloting a groundbreaking telehealth initiative, offering Veterans more convenient care outside their typical doctor’s office, the VA turned to the nation’s wireless carriers. T-Mobile was the first to step up.

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The concept of telehealth is nothing new for the VA.

In fact, the VA documented its first instance of telehealth in the 1960s, when VA physicians communicated with patients through a closed-circuit television system. But as both the number of Veterans served by the VA and understanding of their needs has grown, the VA has continually been on the leading edge of healthcare innovation, and reaching Veterans outside of metropolitan areas has become a major focus in the delivery of healthcare.

“The VA takes care of nine million veterans. A third of them live in rural communities in America far from a VA medical center,” says Deborah Scher, Executive Advisor to the Secretary. “How do we reach them? We knew that telehealth was going to be part of the answer.”

The VA’s vision? Enabling veterans to meet virtually with their VA care providers, regardless of location, through an easy-to-use platform: VA Video Connect. VA Video Connect enables Veterans to meet with their providers over an encrypted video conference. It works on nearly any device that can connect to the Internet and is equipped with a web camera, microphone, and speakers such as smart phones, tablets, and PCs or laptops. 

Delivering this telehealth service depends on reliable Internet connectivity. For Veterans living and working in rural areas, broadband Internet is often unavailable or unreliable, and the unlimited mobile data needed for video telehealth sessions is often too expensive.

“T-Mobile was the first carrier to step up and so they became a pioneer partner in helping us extend healthcare access to veterans who could not otherwise afford to connect to the VA Video Connect platform for extended telehealth appointments with their VA providers,” says Scher.

T-Mobile provided 70,000 wireless lines of service, enabling Veterans to access VA care virtually, wherever they are. This means Veterans don’t have to drive long distances to visit a VA facility, making it simple for them to get care when they need it while also saving time.

“My healthcare before telehealth was really nonexistent,” says Avery Harrington, a retired Iraq War Veteran who now works for a railroad company and often travels out of state. “I keep my house in North Carolina, and my family stays in North Carolina. But when I needed medical appointments, I had to come home, even if was working in New York. I couldn’t make them sometimes. It was either my job or getting healthcare.”

Now registered and familiar with the VA Video Connect platform, Harrington is one of thousands of Veterans benefitting from more flexible healthcare—amounting to more than 1.3 million video telehealth sessions in fiscal year 2019. “It’s pretty amazing to open up your tablet or your phone and start talking to your doctor,” adds Harrington. “You can get problems fixed pretty quickly.”

Expanding telehealth options to meet more patients’ needs.

Drive down Church Street in Asheboro, North Carolina and you’ll find all the trappings of small-town America: a few bustling family restaurants, a classically restored movie theater, kids racing their bikes to the park, and signs of American pride on virtually every corner—from flags waving in the wind to baseball hats and bumper stickers representing every branch of the military.

Along with small-town charm, Asheboro is a prime example of what’s coming next in telehealth.

Building on momentum from the VA Video Connect rollout, the VA—along with partners like Philips, Walmart, the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, and mobile carriers including T-Mobile for Business—is leading an immersive telehealth pilot designed for deployment in Veterans’ own communities. One of the first solutions in this program was deployed in Walmart’s Asheboro store in December 2019, with four other pilot sites now open at other locations across the country.

“We believe at the VA that every Veteran should be offered a choice in how they receive their care,” says Dr. Leonie Heyworth, Director of Synchronous Telehealth. “We really want to reach Veterans, wherever they are, in a space and modality in which they feel comfortable.”

“So we asked ourselves, ‘Who has a footprint that could help the VA extend healthcare access?’” adds Scher. “Walmart was kind enough to share a map of their stores. And when we overlaid the map of Walmart stores with our map of VA healthcare locations, the whole country lit up. We learned that 90 percent of Americans—Veterans included—live within 10 miles of a Walmart.”

Just ask around Asheboro and the real-life impacts of telehealth are already being felt.

“As we get older, we don’t drive as well as used to, we don’t react or see as well as we used to,” says Wayne Shaw, a retired Vietnam War Veteran living just outside of Asheboro. “Presently, I drive over an hour to get healthcare. Companies like T-Mobile, Walmart, and the VA partnering together can really do a lot to help Veterans. With this program, I can get my healthcare in 30 minutes or less.”

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Having the technology and connectivity to deliver more patient-centered healthcare is a huge accomplishment. Still, without the ability to spread the word on a national level, a solution can only go so far.

The VA is laser-focused on optimizing funds to deliver meaningful healthcare and benefits to Veterans. This includes everything from best-in-class precision oncology to suicide prevention programs and senior care. Partnerships with organizations like T-Mobile are a key component of raising Veteran awareness of new VA initiatives and capabilities.

“T-Mobile helped us get the word out to Veterans by creating a commercial that aired nationally, so that Veterans and caregivers would know that VA Video Connect was available through the VA at no charge,” says Scher. “In the month after that commercial aired we saw a 78 percent increase in Veterans registering for VA Video Connect.”

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From telehealth access in your own home to more convenient, immersive telehealth experiences in your community, the future of healthcare is faster, broader, and more reliable than ever before—much like the mobile networks at the heart of today’s telehealth solutions.

“We think telehealth is the future of healthcare—not just at the VA but for all Americans,” says Scher. “If you have a loved one who is aging and they live in a different state than you, telehealth enables you to participate with their permission in the sessions with their provider and hear that information firsthand.”

How will the future of 5G change healthcare for the better? The promise of higher speed, lower latency, and nationwide connectivity associated with 5G could unlock timelier, safer outcomes across the industry—from potentially tracking vital signs when patients leave the hospital and real-time voice-to-text translation for people with hearing disabilities, to testing new surgical techniques via augmented reality lessons. The 5G era will also be the foundation for healthcare use cases that don’t even exist yet.

No matter what comes next in healthcare, don’t be surprised to see the VA leading the charge with 5G-based solutions.

“This is a very powerful moment in time for the VA,” says Scher. “We have built a coalition of companies including Walmart, Philips, T-Mobile, and several others who are stepping forward to take care of those who have served our nation in partnership with the VA. We could not be more grateful. This is the way of the future.”

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