HELENA — The COVID-19 pandemic has created a renaissance for telehealth and telemedicine. More people than ever before have access to healthcare right from their phone.
Even before coronavirus found its way to Montana, the Montana VA Health Care System (MTVAHCS) was using the technology to reach some of their most remote patients.
Health and medical treatment are some of biggest issues veteran populations face, with many veterans afflicted by more than one health condition The Montana VA has been using telehealth since 2006 and started using VA Video Connect (VVC) for face-to-face virtual appointments in 2018.
Kalispell VA Clinic Manager Tiny Hudson has decades of medical experience and says the technology has been a game changer.
“I never saw this coming,” said Hudson. “I’ve been very impressed and I say that as someone that goes to a provider and from the nursing side. I’ve been very impressed with our process and the different levels of care that we can provide all from the patient’s home.”
Hudson says some veterans were making 80 mile trips one-way to see their provider in Kalispell. A potentially dangerous situation in winter, which would lead to patients staying home.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also kept a lot of veterans home who would have regular doctor visits otherwise.
“Especially since COVID, a lot of veterans don’t want to come into the clinic. This protects them when we can offer a phone visit or a VVC visit,” said Hudson.
With telehealth, MTVAHCS can reach vets at their home or wherever they have cell service.
Providers say it’s a great option for rural vets, parents with children or veterans living in an assisted care facility.
“We can actually do a blood pressure check,” said Hudson. “So say you’re a person with hypertension, I can mail you a blood pressure cuff, teach you how to use it over the computer and then watch you actually take your blood pressure.”
Through VVC, providers can even go as far as providing a dermatology consultation.
Hudson added telehealth has been especially beneficial for veterans that need treatment for mental health like post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression.
“Behavioral health is probably one of the biggest users right now of telemedicine,” explained Hudson. “Probably one of the reasons for that is you don’t have the sigma of coming into the clinic to see someone. They see you in your home and nobody knows what your appointment was for. No one sees you meeting with a psychiatrist or psychologist.”
Hudson noted the benefits they’re seeing with assisted care facilities, and the reduction is travel needed for the veteran..VVC and phone visits are also helping family members stay up to date and informed about care a veteran is receiving.
However, even with the boom of telemedicine there are still significant challenges in the state.
Rural internet and cell service infrastructure is lacking for many Montana communities, which can then limit access.
To help meet those needs, the VA are working on installing ATLAS sites across the country in rural communities that offer secure and stable connections to VVC. One such site is already set up in Eureka, MT.
If a veteran is capable of being in service, but does not have their own smartphone, iPad, computer, or laptop to connect to MTVAHCS telehealth appointments, a VA-loaned tablet can be sent to them so they can connect with their provider.
T-Mobile, Verizon, Spring, and Trac-phone are also waiving all mobile charges for veterans who use MTVAHCS VVC for virtual appointments.
Editor's Note: This article has previously said there were ATLAS sites across Montana instead of the United States. There is one ATLAS site in Montana as of Nov. 11 and the MTVAHCS hope to add more in the future.