By Callie Hietala
Virginia’s Acting Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs Kathleen Jabs and Commissioner for the Virginia Department of Veterans Services John Maxwell visited Martinsville last Thursday to learn about a new pilot telehealth program for veterans, the first of its kind being implemented in the Commonwealth. The new program, which Jabs lauded as a “model for modern care,” greatly reduces travel time for veterans who previously had to travel to the Salem V.A. Medical Center or other, more distant, locations for medical care and services.
“It’s a model for modern care,” said Jabs, who toured the health department, spoke with personnel, and watched a demonstration of the new program from Salem’s telehealth registered nurse Jeanine Bomber and telehealth coordinator Lindsay Gill.
During a regular appointment, Bomber and Gill explained, a veteran’s vitals will be checked by a nurse, including blood pressure, temperature, weight, and heart rhythm. That data is automatically logged on an iPad by the medical equipment being used and sent in real time to the patient’s primary care provider in Salem, who is participating in the visit via video call. This allows veterans to enjoy continuity of care while reducing their amount of travel time to their medical appointments.
Gill said that having the registered nurse performing the checkup also means that someone with medical knowledge is available to perform other assessments as needed and as directed by the patient’s physician. Being examined by familiar V.A. staff like Bomber helps with their comfort level, she added.
All equipment needed for the program is contained in a dedicated telehealth case, which holds an iPad, extra batteries, and instruments to take vitals and other medical data. There is also a mobile hotspot to use when regular Wi-Fi connection is not possible and gloves, wipes, and other cleaning supplies. All told, the fully-loaded case weighs around 30-40 pounds and costs about $7,000.
“It’s not a big resource investment, but it has huge dividends,” said Rebecca Stackhouse, medical center director for the Salem V.A. The new program is her brainchild. She said the idea came to her when talking about the ATLAS (Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations) program, which also provides telehealth care to veterans. Stackhouse told Jabs and Maxwell that she had seen a similar setup of mobile medical equipment at an emergency management conference and thought something similar could be used to help veterans, particularly in rural areas.
“We are rural,” Stackhouse said, which presents “significant geography challenges to veterans in getting to us.” This new program brings care to them.
Currently, the program, which is still just a few weeks old, is focused on primary care but already the team is hoping to expand both range of service and variety of care including podiatry and mental health services. Stackhouse said they plan to expand into Patrick County next. “We know there’s a need and we want to get that need met,” she said.
After her tour, Jabs addressed a small crowd in the lobby of the health department.
“Becky Stackhouse in the Salem V.A. has been such a leader in innovative ways to serve veterans,” said Jabs. “She has been able to take healthcare and put it in a box,” allowing V.A. nurses like Bomber to travel around and see veterans with reduced driving time. Living in rural areas, “the driving is just different,” she said.
Jabs told the crowd that she would spread the word about what she observed during her visit across the state and called the program “a leap forward with telehealth.”