There are around 18.2 million veterans in the US, and close to 5 million are living in rural or remote locations. Most of these veterans do not have access to a clinic in town, or the nearest one is several miles away. For those with limited mobility, going to a healthcare center is even more problematic. As a result, thousands of veterans may be left without medical care that would endanger their health and diminish quality of life. Luckily, telehealth services make it easy to access premium healthcare from the comforts of home.
Telehealth for Vets and Its Benefits
The US Department of Veteran Affairs offers telehealth services to veterans by providing remote monitoring devices. Part of the services also includes the Veterans’ Association (VA) Video Connect, an app that veterans use to consult with providers in the comfort of their homes using a smartphone, computer, or tablet.
In rural areas where a resident lives an average of 10.5m from the nearest hospital compared to suburban people at 6.6m and urban dwellers at 4.4m, telemedicine is very convenient, as it eliminates the need to travel long distances to seek medical care. For veterans with varying degrees of disability, going to the clinic can become difficult. They may need someone to drive or accompany them for hospital trips. In this regard, telemedicine offers medical support and assessment at a distance for people with disability living in the countryside.
Furthermore, telehealth care is also accessible from a local community clinic, allowing vets to consult with the primary care giver and VA health specialists nationwide using videos and devices.Veterans who have mental health problems also benefit from virtual services and consultations giving them access to a wide range of health professionals. On top of eliminating commutes, virtual sessions offer privacy for vets with mental health issues.
Impact of Telehealth Services
So far, there has been a significant increase in the number of veterans who have used telehealth services. More than 900,000 veterans availed of telehealth services according to the 2019 mid-October report of the VA representing an increase of 17% over the previous year. VA Video Connect use sessions increased by 235% in 2019 with more than 99,000 veterans using the app at home avoiding trips to the nearest VA facility. Out of the 294,000 VA Video Connect appointments last year, roughly two-thirds were for tele-mental health consultations.
Constraints of Telehealth
In spite of promising statistics and the ‘Anywhere to Anywhere’ rule of the VA, technology infrastructure is a major hurdle in telehealth. Telemedicine requires access to broadband internet with adequate bandwidth to send audio and video data. According to the FCC’s 2019 Broadband Deployment Report, more than 1 in 4 Americans living in a rural area don’t have access to internet of at least 25 Mbps, the bandwidth required to send and receive data.
In addition, although rural Americans have made significant gains in adopting digital tech over the past decade, they are less likely than urban or suburban adults to have access to broadband or own a smartphone. About 3 in 10 adults who live in rural communities own a desktop or laptop, tablet, smartphone, and have a broadband connection. In comparison, 43% of suburban adults own all of these technologies making rural dwellers at a distinct disadvantage, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center report.
All in all, telemedicine is an important part of the telehealth services of the VA. It improves access to health services including consultations with physicians and monitors the health of veterans. Improving infrastructure technology can still drive up the number of vets accessing virtual health care.