Late Breaking News
Use of VA Telehealth Soars as Focus Moves Beyond Veterans in Remote Areas
By Stephen Spotswood
WASHINGTON - In recent years, VA’s efforts in telemedicine increasingly have garnered attention from outside the agency. Recently, VA was named to the 2013 “Most Wired” hospitals list, released annually by Hospitals & Health Networks, based on a national survey aimed at ranking hospitals that leverage health information technology in new and innovative ways.
While specific VA medical centers have made the list before, this represents the first time the entire healthcare system - or any entire healthcare system - has been included.
This recognition comes after years of investment in telehealth and arrives at a time when VA is preparing to expand its efforts to meet an unprecedented growth in veterans using the technology to meet their healthcare needs. The words “telemedicine” and “telehealth” have been part of VA’s vocabulary for more than a decade, with the number of programs allowing veterans to receive care remotely from providers growing slowly and steadily over those 10 years.
During most of that time, however, discussions surrounding telehealth were limited to the populations that could receive the most obvious benefits from the service, such as homebound veterans, those living in rural areas and those with manageable chronic diseases.
That is changing, however, according to Robert A. Petzel, MD, VA Undersecretary for Health. VA telehealth is viewed as not only a line item on VA’s budget but as an entirely new paradigm for delivering care to all veterans in the system.
“We’re moving to a delivery model with technology that puts veterans at the center of care and allows them to drive their own care,” Petzel said at a July meeting with journalists at the National Press Club in Washington.
Healthcare delivery with easy, convenient access to providers and records available at the touch of a button is no longer a technological novelty limited to a few recipients but something all veterans are beginning to demand, he said.
“Patients want better communication with providers,” Petzel said. “This technology is helping us create a system of care without walls.”
With that in mind, VA is investing $500 million in telehealth services in 2013. This includes consultation by video, store-and-forward telehealth (in which images, video, audio and daily living notes are captured, stored and sent to a medical center) and telemental health.
Specific budget amounts for other types of telemedicine are unavailable, but Petzel but noted that spending by VA is declining year by year as the cost of developing the technology decreases.
As costs decrease, use is increasing at an explosive rate. According to VA, veterans’ use of telehealth is rising nearly 29% annually, far higher than similar efforts in the private sector.
Telehealth was first introduced in VA nationwide in 2003. By 2008, the number of veterans using the technology was about 32,000 annually. Last fiscal year, more than 145,000 patients used the clinical video telehealth service alone, and more than 255,000 patients used store-and-forward services, most often in the tele-retinal imaging, teledermatology and telepathology areas.
Overall, the number of patients using some form of telemedicine in FY2012 at VA was estimated at 460,000. These patients took part in more than 1.3 million separate telehealth consultations with VA providers.
By the end of this year, VA aims to reach nearly twice as many veterans with its various telehealth initiatives.
While that doubling will come from VA’s entire patient population, part of the expansion will continue to focus on specific populations of veterans who would not receive care if not for telehealth, such as if they were living in rural areas. With the help of $1 million in grants, VA is partnering with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to help enhance telehealth in remote areas in rural Virginia, Montana and Alaska.
According to VA, this increase in telehealth use has corresponded to a 30% reduction in bed days of care and an estimated $1,900 in savings per patient annually. Approximately 41,000 veterans, who would otherwise have needed long-term institutional care, were able to live independently in their own homes because of their telehealth connections.