Telehealth – the ability to connect remotely with doctors, therapists, and other medical professionals – has become far more than a convenience. For Veterans receiving health care through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), video telehealth enhances accessibility to care by bringing services closer to Veterans and their caregivers, some of whom live hours away from a VA facility or have medical conditions that make travel difficult.

Dr. Teresa Carper is a clinical psychologist in the Orlando VA Healthcare System. She provides psychotherapy to Veterans facing mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression and coordinates the mental health telehealth program.

“One of the biggest challenges in providing health care to our Veterans is access to care,” Dr. Carper says. “We have a lot of Veterans who are in great need of both medical and mental health treatment and face barriers in their ability to come and get the help they need.”

VA Video Connect

The VA’s video telehealth platform, VA Video Connect, is similar to Skype and is accessible from any device, smartphone, tablet, or computer with a camera. It is an encrypted system that guarantees patient privacy and HIPAA compliance.

As Dr. Carper explains, Veterans – particularly combat Veterans in need of mental health treatment – often have acute, time-sensitive issues, and getting them the care they need quickly is a top priority.

“It becomes difficult to say that we can give you this great treatment, but you’ve got to come in once a week for 12 weeks,” she says, especially when the Veterans just can’t make those appointments because of work, travel challenges, or other restrictions.

“Offering treatment in the comfort of their own home has been a game changer for so many. They can schedule treatment at a time that’s good for them,” she says.

Unfortunately, due to income level, geographic location, and/or other factors, some Veterans have insufficient internet access to utilize VA Video Connect from their homes or mobile phones. This “digital divide” creates a health care access disparity that adversely impacts a vulnerable portion of the Veteran population.

In support of Veterans and the VA’s telehealth program, Sprint has partnered with the VA to expand the availability of the telehealth services by providing all Sprint’s Veteran customers, who subscribe to data plans, unlimited access to the VA Video Connect application without incurring data charges1. This helps the program reach as many individuals as possible.

“It is really nice that Sprint has waived the data fee for Veterans who are using VA Video Connect,” says Dr. Carper. “Often Veterans connect with Wi-Fi, which can be spotty, and a session is only as good as the extent to which you can hear and see somebody. It’s disruptive to have a therapy session when you’re saying things like, ‘Are you still able to hear me?’”

In recent years, the VA patient base has shifted toward younger men and women patients, who are raising families and are working every day, limiting their flexibility to come in for regular treatment. In addition, because the VA has a range of mental health specialists in various locations around the country, a Veteran may not have access to that type of specialist at their nearest VA facility.

“In mental health, in particular, our providers undergo certifications for particular types of psychotherapy, types that are evidence-based and designed to treat specific mental health issues,” Dr. Carper explains. But because the VA is a federal institution, these specialists can treat Veterans anywhere, regardless of state-specific certifications.

“So with telehealth, we break through those barriers. Geographical distance no longer becomes an issue, and we are able to treat many more Veterans this way.”

Overcoming challenges

Dr. Carper tells of one patient who is a teacher and can’t make her regular sessions because of her work schedule. That teacher gets to school an hour early, locks herself in her empty classroom, and has the Video Connect session before students arrive.

“She told me, ‘I don’t know how I would’ve done this if I wasn’t able to bring my tablet into work and do it this way,’” Dr. Carper notes.

Jon Held, a retired U.S. Navy hospital corpsman and a patient of Dr. Carper, swears by VA Video Connect. He has a range of physical health problems that make it difficult for him to walk.

For him, traveling from his home in Kissimmee, Florida, to the VA hospital in Orlando means waking up extremely early and driving for at least an hour.

“I would have to leave at five in the morning, and I don’t sleep well at night to begin with,” Held says. “So I’m kind of groggy by the time I get up and get going.”

And then there is the walking once he gets to the hospital, and the time spent waiting to see Dr. Carper. That all takes its toll on him.

“That’s why Video Connect and my Sprint phone and service is a godsend. I don’t have to get up at 4:45 and stress out about the Orlando traffic. I just brush my teeth and comb my hair, and here I am. I love it.”

Held says that as much as he likes seeing the doctor in person, using his tablet or phone does provide the sense of being in the same room.

Enthusiastic response

Dr. Carper says patients jump at the chance to use VA Video Connect rather than come to the hospital in person. Most importantly, she adds, the treatments are just as effective when delivered via Video Connect as they are with in-person care.

“This is something that I am truly passionate about,” she says. “I have seen so many Veterans benefit from this who without it might not have been able to have access to much-needed mental health care. It breaks through all the barriers and allows the Veteran to do this right from home.”

1Data used over a VPN session will incur charges due to technical limitations.