VA Healthcare System a leader in wireless medicine
Army veteran Mark Ellis of Springfield uses My Healthevet to track his medications. KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — The VA Healthcare System went digital back in the 1980s, two decades before many private health providers began using electronic medical records.
As a result, VA administrators say, the system has been an early laboratory for the use of new wireless communications tools such as online patient portals, portable devices to track patients with chronic diseases and “telehealth” visits where veterans are examined by doctors via Internet connections.
“Fifteen years ago, we mandated that all medication orders would be in the electronic system compared to only 20 percent of hospitals,” said Roger Johnson, director of the 143-bed VA medical center in Leeds. “Part of our challenge is to continue to be ahead of the rest. The interface with the veteran is the big one — how we can bring them into the process.”
Here are examples of how the VA is using new wireless technology to improve the delivery of care.
• Health Buddies: Since 2007, the medical center here has distributed 200 portable answering machine-sized Health Buddy devices to veterans with chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart failure. The veterans enter daily blood pressure and blood sugar readings that are transmitted to health teams at the VA.
The devices each cost the VA $344 and an additional $100 for modems for those veterans who do not have land lines. That is still “a lot less expensive than a hospital stay or a visit to the emergency room,” said Maryann Carnes, the medical center’s comamunity care home telehealth coordinator.
The machines are provided free to eligible veterans. George Murphy, a U.S. Navy veteran who lives in Holyoke, said he uses his Buddy once a day to track his blood pressure and blood sugar. “If anything is running too high or too low, it will tell your doctor,” said Murphy, 73, who has diabetes.
“You can’t lie to the machine,” he added, with a grin. ”I’m doing better because of it.”
Studies show that 89 percent of diabetics using the devices have lowered their blood sugar readings, Carnes said. In addition to keeping veterans in daily contact with their health-care teams, the devices offer reminders and informational messages about medications and other health issues.
Carnes said that veterans like the devices so much, “it’s a tough discussion about giving them back” when their health improves.
The medical center hopes to distribute another 20 Health Buddies to area veterans this year.
e_SBlt MyHealtheVet: The VA launched its online password-protected portal in 2003 for veterans nationwide. By linking to the portal, veterans can send email to their doctors, get prescription refills, wellness reminders, track their military and health history — even visit medical libraries and online support centers.
The system began as an educational tool but has since been expanded to include access to test results and other parts of a veteran’s electronic medical record. “Eventually, they will be able to see the progress notes written by nurses and doctors,” said Johnson.
e_SBlt Telehealth: “Save Yourself the Trip,” says the brochure describing how veterans using the telehealth system can consult with doctors and specialists via secure Internet connections.
Using high-definition cameras linked to computers, doctors can perform exams in real time for veterans who live far from hospitals or have difficulty traveling. Doctors can listen to heart rates, examine wounds and look in ears, noses and throats via equipment attached to the video screens. Telehealth visits are not recorded to ensure patient privacy.
Recently, a veteran served by the VA medical center in Leeds avoided having to go to Pennsylvania from his home in East Longmeadow for an exam after suffering a stroke, said Sherry Walsh, the medical center’s telehealth coordinator.
“He came here and had two visits with a provider” via the telehealth system, she said. “That saved him from the expense and anxiety of travel.”
Additional information about the VA’s telehealth programs is available by calling 584-4040, ext. 2242, or visiting the Leeds medical center’s website at www.centralwesternmass.va.gov.