VA Salt Lake City Health Care System
VA tech forges Veteran connections
Imagine a future where you could see a doctor while camping.
No driving. No crowded waiting rooms. Just the care you need, where and when you need it.
That future is now.
As COVID-19 disrupted the nation’s hospitals, providers at VA Salt Lake City Health Care System ramped up use of VA Video Connect (VCC), a video conferencing program that allows medical professionals to remotely diagnose their patients and update medical charts.
“This allows staff to see Veterans anytime, anywhere, and removes barriers that Veterans may face when trying to attend an appointment,” said VA TeleMental Health Program Coordinator Elysia Pace. “It allows providers to be more flexible when meeting with the Veteran and helps with facility space shortages.
The use of Video Connect also reduced Veteran travel times to in-person appointments – in some cases by hours. But it didn’t just make life easier for Veterans; by staying at home, Veterans limit their exposure to the virus, keeping them safer.
To get providers up to speed, Pace and others at the medical center created VA Video Connect University, a two-day in-person training course – and VA’s first in the nation. The former Telehealth Primary Care Room now features 18 state-of-the-art private sound-resistant booths for video conferencing.
“The hope is to become a training model for other VA’s,” Pace said. “The intent is for staff to receive a higher level of understanding and education to integrate VVC into their everyday routines.”
VA Nurse Practitioner Kristin McElwain just completed the course and said she learned how to troubleshoot the platform, a task she wasn’t comfortable with before. Now she can better connect with the Veterans she serves; a connection she said was limited over the phone.
“They’re able to see me,” McElwain said. “They're able to know that I can see them and that I can that I can relate to what they're doing and see what's happening with them, and I think that's reassuring.”
She continued, “You can see their expression. You can see if they're in pain, grimacing. You can see how easily they're moving or how much difficulty they're having with mobility. You can't get any of that with phone visits, so I think it gives us a whole new dimension.”
Video appointments are so convenient, some patients have even attended them from their car or while camping, McElwain said.
But the platform isn’t without challenges. There are bandwidth issues in rural areas, a learning curve, especially for older patients who may not have as much experience with technology, and some Veterans who struggle to embrace change.
“It doesn't have the closeness that you have with face to face,” advanced practice registered nurse Lucy Leaver said. “When you see somebody in person, it's a lot different than on a video. You're never going to be able to replace that.”
For Vietnam Veteran Max Rasmussen, the service is worth its weight in gold.
Rasmussen, who lives in Roosevelt, Utah, said a one-way trip to the VA takes three hours – longer if there’s traffic. Factor in the appointment and commute home and you’ve lost a whole day, he said.
“When I’m able to do everything here, it’s worth a million dollars every time,” he said. “I work seven days a week and don’t need to take a day off work.”
About 20 providers have completed VVC University, but Pace said as technology expands, hundreds more will follow, allowing more providers to forge stronger connections with patients.
For McElwain and others trying to reach rural Veterans amid a pandemic, it’s a move in the right direction.
“This has been a crazy time and our patients are anxious,” McElwain said. “It's important for us to try and help them figure out what's the new normal and maintain some consistency and some calm in this crazy world we're living in.”