Online doctor appointments are on the rise for the VA Butler Health Care System even as they contend with spotty signals or poor internet connection in parts of Butler County.
Corey Eckenrode, a telehealth clinical technician at Butler VA, said the organization was moving toward providing online health services — called telehealth — even before the pandemic forced people to isolate.
The mandate on quarantining has pushed the VA to hasten its efforts to help veterans receive medical advice electronically. But certain parts of the county have connection issues and, Eckenrode said, some of the veterans they serve don't have devices that operate telehealth programs.
For those veterans, Eckenrode and others try to get around the issue by providing them with iPads and other devices.
“Connectivity is a tough one. Lots of patients don't have (a) good signal,” Eckenrode said, noting that they will often connect the veteran to a social worker who can help them get a better internet provider.
Nationally, the VA conducted about 2,500 telehealth video sessions daily at the beginning of March. By the end of June, that number had increased by 1,000% with nearly 25,000 sessions.
“We intend to sustain and grow from here. We think this is the beginning of a longer trajectory and there is more expansion possible with specialty care delivered at the bedside in the in-patient setting and emergency care settings,” Jennifer MacDonald, chief consultant to the deputy undersecretary for health at the Veterans Health Administration, testified in June during a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing.
And in Butler County, Eckenrode and others are making that mission possible. The iPads they provide to veterans come with blood pressure cuffs, a digital stethoscope and anything else a patient might need.
For mental health, the iPads are preloaded with programs to get them in touch with a mental health expert.
Through the iPad, veterans can also order their prescriptions for delivery.
The iPads have the added benefit of being connected to the internet already via Verizon. If the veteran still can't get service, the VA will use an outreach program. Called ATLAS — Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations — the program reaches out to businesses, such as a local Walmart, in the area that have internet and can provide a secure room for veterans.
So far, the VA Butler Healthcare has issued more than 400 iPads.
“They go very quickly,” Eckenrode said. “And if veterans want to come in, that's still an option, but we try to limit their exposure.”
The telehealth system has the added benefit of being able to connect veterans to specialists around the country.
“We do a lot of things with Pittsburgh, Salt Lake City, Denver, Philadelphia,” said Curtis Bowmer, a Connected Care Program Specialist with the VA. “The objective is to get them the care when they need it, where they need it.”
The VA Butler is also having nursing staff take needed medical equipment to the veterans' individual homes for certain conditions.
Eckenrode, Bowmer and others with the VA acknowledge that some veterans, especially older ones, might be resistant to using technology, so every day for several hours the team sets up a demonstration table in the health care center on North Duffy Road. There, veterans have a chance to see how the system works. “Our program is constantly changing, and our equipment is always evolving,” Eckenrode said, noting that the next telehealth software update will allow users to attach items like a digital stethoscope to a smartphone's bluetooth.