Telehealth extends care to veterans closer to home

Clinicians who practice in rural New mexico communities link with each other and with Hepatitis C specialists at the University of New mexico in albuquerque to present and discuss their cases. The Va will adopt a similar approach with its recent launch of a telehealth program patterned on the New mexico model.

Sharing information is at heart of new effort

WASHINGTON  -  Down with the need for lengthy commutes, transportation costs, and too much time waiting  -  the barriers that often decrease the quality of rural health are officially dissolving for the nation's veterans.

The VA has launched a new program known as Specialty Care Access Network  -  Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes (SCAN-ECHO). The program, announced July 11, will leverage cutting-edge telehealth technology to provide specialty, comprehensive care to veterans nationwide, regardless of where they live.

The VA's implementation marks the first nationwide extension of ECHO.

Sanjeev Arora, MD, an innovator and liver disease specialist at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center in Albuquerque, engendered the initial spark for the ECHO project.

As a provider of chronic illness care for rural patients, Arora said his treatment was often stalled as patients struggled to commute to doctor appointments and pay for transportation. "I had the thought that if these patients had just come to me earlier, I would have been able to treat them better," he said.

To that end, Arora began working with other providers to leverage telehealth technology and share expertise. Soon ECHO projects spanned 19 areas of New Mexico, he said, and treatment quality showed "dramatic improvement."

Enter the VA, whose system of veterans seeking care includes many members in rural areas. "Rural veterans are less likely to have access to health services, particularly in the special care services that they may need," explained VA under secretary for health Robert Petzel.

The department wants to re-route this. Petzel says the SCAN-ECHO's program to generate communication and expertise across practices, and extend that quality to patients  -  wherever they are  -  presented a strong opportunity "to help veterans lead healthier, more fulfilling lives," he said, adding that "patients with complex problems like heart failure, chronic pain, diabetes can get high-level specialty care closer to their home."

At the crux of this care enhancement, Arora said, is the sharing of information. "The primary purpose in ECHO is not to treat individual patients, it's to generate expertise."

So, no  -  telehealth as a one-on-one interaction between a doctor and patient won't be realized in this case. Rather, the model connects specialist care teams to primary care providers in local communities. Through weekly virtual clinics, specialists and community providers will share expertise, treatment strategies, results, and the latest medical research to analyze their patient cases and develop solutions.

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Topics: Telehealth