Veterans are receiving increased accessibility to mental health care through a partnership between Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile and VA. The three telecommunications giants offer Veteran customers free cellular data to attend telehealth appointments through VA Video Connect.

Now, Sprint has released the first video to highlight VA’s TeleMental Health services.

TeleMental Health services have a long history within VA, launching in 2002. Dr. Teri Carper, a VA provider who took part in the production, has seen patients solely through telehealth since 2012. She said VA has made great strides in delivering mental health care virtually.

Advancing telemental health care

For the first several years of her work in virtual care, Carper met with patients through Clinical Video Telehealth (CVT). For CVT appointments, patients visit a local VA clinic to attend a video appointment with a VA provider at a different facility.

Patient outcomes were great, and Veterans were able to access the specialty care they needed. But the format had its drawbacks, particularly for treatments such as recurring therapy sessions, Carper said.

A Veteran talks to provider during telehealth session.

A Veteran talks to provider during telehealth session.

“Psychotherapy is not what a lot of people think it is,” she said. “It’s not just coming in and chatting about your week. When you do psychotherapy as an effective treatment, it’s really something that’s weekly or even twice a week.”

Frequent visits are challenging enough. Veterans also had to show up early to their telehealth appointments for screening with the on-site staff.

“You’re driving some place to see somebody on the TV, and you have to come in earlier than if you saw somebody in the flesh,” Carper said.

VA Video Connect to the rescue

The advent of VA Video Connect in 2017 helped save Veterans time and money. Through VA Video Connect, Veterans meet with their health care teams through virtual, real-time video appointments using their computer, tablet or smartphone.

As the technology expands, it enables more Veterans to take advantage of telehealth care.

Early telehealth efforts focused on Veterans in rural populations. But the reality is that patients anywhere can face obstacles to care. Some may struggle to navigate dense city traffic to reach appointments on time. Others may be managing mental health conditions, such as anxiety or depression, that can make leaving the house difficult.

“VA Video Connect was a game changer, because now it’s something that can be offered to everybody, with very few exceptions,” said Carper. “Even if you live across the street from the main facility, you have this option.”

There is also a growing population of younger Veterans who are seeking treatment while juggling myriad other responsibilities, including work, family, and school.

“If you’re balancing all these things, it’s going to be really difficult to come in weekly and meet with somebody,” Carper said.

Making telehealth work for Veterans

The expansion of VA Video Connect is part of a continued effort by VA to adapt to the needs of Veterans. For example, Carper and her colleagues are working to integrate telehealth into the protocol for handling no-shows for face-to-face appointments.

Under the current protocol, the provider will call a patient who is late or misses an in-person appointment. During these check-in calls, the provider offers to help the patient reschedule.

“What we’re proposing is that providers call the Veteran and offer to convert the appointment to telehealth,” said Carper. “Being able to offer that Veteran a telehealth appointment on the spot, so the appointment isn’t lost, would be huge.”

Carper said her team is hopeful the initiative will help meet Veterans where they are. She added they hope to support the continuity of care that is crucial to making progress in therapy sessions.

Expanding teleMental health – awareness and advocacy

Carper said the majority of her patients, when prompted, are open to receiving care through technologies such as VA Video Connect. They just didn’t know they could.

“This is something that Veterans want and largely don’t know about,” said Carper.

Part of the responsibility for promoting telehealth falls on providers, who sometimes have reservations about using the technology.

“I get it. Most of us came up before this was a thing,” Carper acknowledged. “I certainly didn’t see it in grad school or internship or residency, so this feels new and different.”

The sooner providers feel comfortable delivering care virtually, the better they can educate patients about this avenue available to them.

“We should all be able to switch back and forth between face-to-face and VA Video Connect depending on the patient’s needs.”

With the backing of major phone carriers, Veterans have more options than ever before to receive the care they need. Carper said she is hopeful VA can continue to push the bounds of what is possible through telehealth.

“I really have seen how this transforms people and how, if this were not an option, they would not be getting care,” she said. “Patients like it, it works, and it’s not as scary as it sounds.”

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Published on Mar. 6, 2020

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