VA telehealth program to grow at brisk clip

By Eric Wicklund
10:11 AM

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which used telehealth to connect with an estimated 460,000 veterans in the past year, is looking to double that number in the coming year with an aggressive campaign that includes new and expanded services.

The VA's program, instituted in 2003, recorded 1.3 million consultations in the past year, according to Adam Darkins, MD, the VA's chief consultant for telehealth services. That includes video consults, "store-and-forward" telehealth (in which digital images, video, audio, so-called "observations of daily living" and clinical data are captured and stored on a client computer or mobile device, then forwarded at a convenient time to appropriate caregivers) and home monitoring of an estimated 75,000 veterans suffering from one or more chronic conditions.

Darkins, speaking at the Center for Connected Health's Connected Health Symposium last week in Boston, said the VA is poised to boost its video consult program into the home and add more mHealth programs, e-consults and teleradiology programs to reach some 825,000 veterans by the end of 2013. He said the VA especially wants to boost its chronic disease management program, moving some 13,000 veterans now monitored by interactive voice response to a video conferencing platform.

"This is about a very different kind of healthcare," he said. "This is about connecting with people in a different way."

Darkins' presentation follows up on an announcement made in September that the VA would be working with the Department of Health and Human Services to boost its telehealth program to reach more veterans living in rural areas. The initiative, supported by roughly $983,000 in federal grants, seeks to promote collaboration between VA clinics and hospitals and other providers who deal with veterans.

That program is targeted at three states with the highest density of veterans – Virginia, Montana and Alaska – and will set aside $300,000 for each state to upgrade its telehealth network and develop electronic health records that are compatible with the VA's VistA EHR.

"This is an outstanding example of a partnership that expands access to care and improves quality of life for rural veterans,” said VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki in a press release issued in September. "Working with partners like HHS, VA will continue to increase the reach of our services beyond our 152 major medical centers to ensure veterans receive the care they have earned and deserve."

Darkins said the VA's telehealth program has seen 30 percent reductions in bed days of care and 80 percent patient satisfaction rates and saved an estimated $1,900 per person annually – and consistently – since 2005, moving it well beyond the "pilot" stage.

"It's not a rarified environment. It's not a controlled environment. It's the routine of care," he said.