VA telehealth program offers virtual access to care teams, wellness classes, yoga

The VA St. Louis Healthcare System is partnering with telecom vendor Uniper Care in a pilot program to give veterans access to social support to address loneliness and depression.
By Kat Jercich
10:02 AM

(Photo: JeffonWire / Flickr)

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs St. Louis Healthcare System announced this week that it has contracted with the telecommunications vendor Uniper Care for a pilot program providing veterans access to telehealth and social engagement services.

As part of the pilot program, 40 to 50 veterans would have access to the Uniper Care service at no charge, a VA St. Louis Healthcare System representative told Healthcare IT News. 

Uniper Care's system allows users to adapt their televisions into an interactive platform using an HDMI cable; its cross-platform service is also available on desktop or mobile devices. 

WHY IT MATTERS

A 2018 study found that loneliness is closely associated with depression and suicidal ideation among veterans in primary care. For veterans in high-risk groups such as seniors or people with disabilities the distancing measures necessitated by the COVID-19 crisis may be exacerbating existing feelings of isolation.

The pandemic also may be making it more difficult for them to access medical treatment. 

In response, the VA St. Louis Healthcare System, which served about 50,000 veterans last year, is connecting veterans via Uniper Care with others and with VA staff.

Through the pilot program, 40 to 50 veterans will be able to request one-on-one telehealth care through their VA team. They'll also have access to group wellness classes such as yoga, tai chi, mindfulness and healthy eating.

"It's live group programming," said Amanda Purnell, innovation specialist at the VA St. Louis Healthcare System. "So the clinicians delivering the material can respond to the veterans' questions in real-time."

THE LARGER TREND

VA centers across the country are using telehealth as a way to connect with veterans in need. 

In March, the VA released a COVID-19 Response Plan that noted telehealth as a potential tool to support "mildly ill" patients and to monitor those at home in quarantine. 

Last month, the VA announced a partnership with Facebook and the American Red Cross to provide qualified veterans and their caregivers with Facebook's stand-alone video-chat device, Portal. 

Like VA St. Louis Healthcare System's partnership with Uniper Care, the VA's partnership with Facebook focused on the potential mental health harms of isolation.

"Our goal is for veterans to feel less isolated through more communication," VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in a statement. "We believe this technology will help veterans who might otherwise be unreachable."

ON THE RECORD

Uniper Care leaders say their included programming is part of their intent to treat the "whole person."

“Our goal is to enhance the social determinants of health for veterans by taking a holistic approach to physical health – creating opportunities for constant social interaction and providing remote access to mental health treatment so that veterans regardless of income or background can thrive at home, happier, healthier and as independent as possible,” said Avi Price, COO of Uniper Care, in a statement. 

Kat Jercich is senior editor of Healthcare IT News.
Twitter: @kjercich
Healthcare IT News is a HIMSS Media publication.