Telemedicine Being Used To Link South Coast Veterans With Medical Specialists In Los Angeles

Aug 10, 2016

Richard Valdez is a former Marine and Vietnam veteran who was wounded in the war, and has been living with its aftereffects for a half century.

He was shot in the knee, and has had knee replacement surgery, as well as six other operations over the last 40 years through the Veterans Administration healthcare system. Valdez says he’s taken advantage of a service offered by the VA known as telemedicine, which allows veterans to talk to their health care providers without having to drive to Los Angeles, where the specialists are based.  Via the VA’s telemedicine service, he’s been able to check in with specialists without having to make the trek to Los Angeles, where they are based.

Telemedicine has been getting a big push in Ventura County, where local VA facilities have been overwhelmed in the past, and seeing a specialist means a trip to VA facilities in the Los Angeles area.  It involves patients in some places going to local clinics, like the one in Oxnard, where they use a teleconferencing system to talk to physicians in Los Angeles, and elsewhere.  In other cases, doctors may talk to patients directly at home, using tools like ipads or Skype.

Democratic Congresswoman Julia Brownley of Westlake Village brought a House subcommittee to Camarillo for a field hearing on the use of telemedicine in the VA Healthcare System. Brownley says until the VA can get more specialists to areas like Ventura County, telemedicine in many cases provides an alternative to long days of travel for veterans to LA for healthcare.

Dr. Scottie Harttronft, who’s the Chief of Staff for the VA’s greater Los Angeles Health Care System, says they’ve expanded the availability of telemedicine in Ventura County to help bridge the current staffing shortfall. He says since he joined the VA in Southern California in April, they’ve beefed up telemedicine to get veterans in to talk to doctors while they wait for assignment of a permanent care provider. System wide, the VA telemedicine effort is booming, with close to 700,000 veterans using it more than two million times in 2015.

Dr. Kevin Galpin is interim director of the VA’s national telehealth effort. Galpin says the technology is much more than medical professionals connecting with patients. He says it can allow family members to take an active role in a family member’s care, even if they can’t physically attend the appointment, by joining in via phone or Skype. He says they are also using the service to be more proactive with preventive health care for veterans, using it as a tool to monitor the progress of veterans being treated.

The system's advocates say one of its biggest issues may be just getting people to try it. Some older veterans are reluctant to try teleconferencing as a way of communicating with medical professionals, while VA officials say younger patients often embrace it. They say it’s not intended to be a total replacement for doctor visits, but for something like a simple progress report, it can provide an efficient way of getting the job completed.