CINCINNATI — As a global pandemic surged across the United States, the Cincinnati VA Medical Center faced a challenge: How do you treat patients you can’t see in person?
“The biggest wall that we faced at the beginning of the pandemic, access,” said Dr. Lindsay Riegler, Innovation Specialist at the Cincinnati VA Medical Center.
They had telehealth in place and the VA Video Connect (VVC) video-conferencing platform; however, it hadn’t been put to a pandemic-sized test.
“It was clunky at the time and we never incorporated VVC into standard workflow,” Riegler said. “So we had patients that were still coming in face-to-face, but we were transitioning over to a virtual modality and we didn't know how to do that.”
As their team began to work through troubleshooting how best to serve veteran patients. they received national approval from the VA to use video apps and platforms like Skype, Zoom, and Facebook Messenger to be able to maintain connectivity with patients. Eventually, the VA Video Connect system would be the main form of contact for appointments.
“The technology did not used to be user-friendly," Riegler said. "We’ve come a long way.”
In March, there was nearly an 1100% increase in use of VVC. Other data provided by the CVAMC indicates 23% of the registered patients are using or have used the VA Video Connect. The age of those using the technology ranged from 20 to patients who are over the age of 90. Dr. Riegler says they’ve really focused on making the technology easy for patients of all age groups and technology expertise.
She points out now that support groups can meet virtually to be able to maintain some sense of normalcy. They offer Gerofit for groups and mental health, and even Tai Chi.
Army veteran Shawn Claypool said the VA Video Connect allows him to go to doctor's appointments in between classes at Northern Kentucky University if necessary.
“It's a lot faster -- I mean if your appointment is at one o'clock, you click the link at one o'clock and you're there,” Claypool said. “You don't have to be early for anything, there's no driving involved, you don't have to worry about traffic.”
Dr. Riegler admits that connectivity isn’t always available to every veteran. If that’s the case, she says, the VA has a plan to help those veterans with technology.
“The veteran I saw this morning, he has a monthly-pay cell phone bill and his connectivity is not that good," Riegler said. "So in his case, I ordered a tablet from the Denver Acquisitions Logistics Center to be sent to his home that has 4G connectivity so that I can see him every week.”
The tablet is locked down and only able to be used to connect to the VA system for the appointments.
Even as the CVAMC begins to open their doors to 40% capacity for in-person appointments, they’re encouraging veterans to utilize the telehealth and video-appointment options when in-person visits aren’t a necessity.
"That’s up to the direct patient care provider. They make that clinical decision whether that veteran must be seen in person, and if they need to be seen, they can come in and be seen," Riegler said. "If they’re at risk or a reason why they shouldn’t be potentially exposed to a hospital setting then we do our best to accommodate them through VVC. If VVC just isn’t for them, we can accommodate them through the telephone.”