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.”