Skype with your doc? 'Telehealth' shortens wait times for vets in Ventura County

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Military veterans in Ventura County needing specialty medical care are increasingly seeing their providers through a Skype-like app. The Department of Veterans Affairs calls it "telehealth."

Traffic on the highways between the V.A. outpatient clinic in Oxnard and the veterans hospital in Westwood is a big reason for the change. It simply took too long for many patients to make the drive to West Los Angeles just for a doctor's appointment.

In recent years the V.A. has struggled with such access issues—long wait times for appointments, and often long distances between vets and their doctors. As part of a wider effort to address that, the V.A. is turning to technology. 

Former Navy hospital Corpsman Zachary Walker said telehealth has been effective for him. He's one of 60,000 veterans who receive their health care from the V.A. in Ventura County—10 percent of whom have used telehealth.

"My normal wait time for an appointment of two to three months was reduced to a week," Walker said.

While the Oxnard clinic has a number of primary care physicians on staff, specialists are generally only available at the large V.A. health care centers. 

Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA 26th District) and Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH 2nd District) held a Congressional committee meeting at the Camarillo Public Library to tell the public about advances in "telehealth" for military veterans. Both members of Congress serve on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Rep. Julia Brownley (D-CA 26th District) and Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH 2nd District) held a Congressional committee meeting at the Camarillo Public Library to tell the public about advances in "telehealth" for military veterans. Both members of Congress serve on the House Veterans Affairs Committee. KPCC/John Ismay

Walker first tried telehealth after his efforts to get an in-person appointment kept failing. After calling the Westwood hospital daily, a supervisor suggested he try conferencing in from the Oxnard clinic. 

"I was very happy with it," Walker said. "I was a little reluctant because my medical experience I had never dealt with a doctor through a teleprompter."

Dr. Kevin Galpin is the interim director of the national telemedicine program at the V.A. He said telehealth can be integrated into "almost any kind of specialty care."
  
Certain outpatient clinics have  a "telehealth cart" that allows a doctor in a separate location to actually perform many of the tasks usually done in-person. These include stethoscope attachments, an otoscope, and an opthalmoscope among others.

"And so we’ll have on the side of the patient we’ll have potentially a nurse or a technician who is essentially the hands of the provider," Galpin said.

Galpin said the agency is trying to expand the services available and the number of veterans using them. 

 

Editor's Note: an earlier version of this story inaccurately paraphrased Dr. Galpin's answer to a question about the limitations of telemedicine. 

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