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How Telemedicine Serves Our Military

by Joel E. Barthelemy

There was a time, not too long ago, when many veterans had a difficult time accessing specialty healthcare services because they lived in rural areas. My dad, who lost much of his hearing in World War II and the Korean War, was one of those veterans. He had to take an 85-mile bus ride to see an audiologist at the nearest VA hospital that had one. But now telemedicine has made it possible to receive healthcare without needing to be in the physical presence of the specialist.

The same technology has also changed how active duty service members are diagnosed and treated. Wherever they happen to be in the world or on the battlefield, telemedicine and satellite communications now enable them to receive expert medical help. The U.S. military is also using telemedicine globally to aid civilians stricken by natural disasters.

Here are three examples of how telemedicine is bringing first-class healthcare to the men and women serving us when doctors and hospitals are not close by.

US Army/US Navy, Humacao, Puerto Rico

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, becoming the worst natural disaster to ever hit the island. The loss of electricity, the severe damage to homes and agriculture, the lack of clean drinking water and the shortage of supplies combined to create a health crisis of severe magnitude that one year later is still not back to pre-hurricane normalcy.

To provide healthcare to the hurricane victims, U.S. Army mobile medics and nurses from Brooke Army Medical Center’s (BAMC) Virtual Medical Center and Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center flew to Puerto Rico. They established clinical operations in Humacao, one of the hardest hit regions, and started treating the local residents.

The team members used telehealth to provide on-demand, synchronous critical care and specialty virtual health encounters. Rugged telemedicine equipment enabled the team to receive remote medical support from providers at BAMC in Fort Sam Houston, TX, Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Fort Gordon, GA, Naval Medical Center San Diego and the U.S. Naval Ship Comfort.

U.S. Army Europe

The Regional Telehealth Department at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC) provides telehealth services to U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force service members assigned to over 20 bases in Germany, Italy and Turkey. Launched in 2010, virtual health was at first mainly used for face-to-face encounters with either behavioral health or nutritional health patients. Today, telehealth services include more than 40 specialties, including but not limited to:

  • Addiction Treatment
  • Allergy/Immunology
  • Cardiology & Coumadin Clinic
  • Dermatology
  • Ear, Nose, & Throat
  • Endocrinology
  • Hematology
  • Infectious Disease
  • Neurology
  • Neurospine Surgery
  • Occupational Therapy

For a full list of telehealth services, click here.

While patients and providers who were new to virtual health expressed some initial skepticism, clinicians have seen firsthand telehealth’s high quality and level of patient and provider satisfaction. In fact, the Regional Health Command Europe Virtual Health program enjoys a 98 percent patient satisfaction rate. Patients have shared feedback, noting the experience is very rewarding, is very similar to seeing the specialist in person and, best of all, saves time, dollars and renders care sooner.

Before the advent of telehealth, some service members had to drive four hours to the nearest clinic for an office visit. Those four-hour trips add up. In 2016, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center reported that telehealth saved more than 2,300 work and school days, 1.5 million dollars in travel costs, and more than 900,000 kilometers. That same year, the LRMC telehealth operation was lauded for accomplishing 2,600+ virtual visits in a 12-month period, a 160 percent increase from the previous year.

U.S. Navy Hospital Ship Mercy

In March 2018, the U.S. Navy hospital ship Mercy transmitted the first-ever portable telemedicine broadcast from a ship at sea, sending vital signs and ear, nose, throat, head and neck skin examinations to a specialist physician at Naval Medical Center San Diego. With guidance from a remote physician, a medically certified naval officer aboard the ship was also able to place a tourniquet, insert a chest tube and surgically open an airway.

Telehealth has proven to be a cost-effective alternative to onsite care in these military facilities, which cannot meet the healthcare needs of all active duty service people, their dependents, and retirees. Telehealth also increases access to care for those service members and military families who live a significant distance away from the nearest MHS facility. Similarly, as the Mercy demonstration showed, the technology can provide remote access to specialists who are not on staff in hospital ships.

Conclusion

Telehealth is having a significant impact on the lives of our active duty service members and veterans while reducing the cost of caring for them. It is also enabling our military to aid disaster-stricken regions of our country and the world. When people need medical assistance, telehealth can bring first-class healthcare to them, regardless of where they happen to be.

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