By Wendy Kagan
Telemedicine is a fast-growing trend, connecting people with their doctors through real-time online video conferences, and often saving time and money along the way. Virtual interactions with medical providers might still seem like a high-tech novelty to some, but one population has been quick to embrace the trend: military veterans.
A flurry of recent studies points to the many benefits of telemedicine for post-deployment veterans who seek help for mental health problems like PTSD, insomnia, depression and anxiety. From digital psychotherapy sessions with telepsychiatrists to conferences with care managers and telephone pharmacists, veterans can get a team-based approach from the comfort of their own home or anywhere an Internet connection is possible. Such access is a boon to patients who would otherwise avoid therapy due to stigma as well as to those living in areas with a lack of trained therapists or those who have transportation or scheduling challenges, among other obstacles to treatment.
One study published in the journal Telemedicine and e-Health cited the reduced cost and mortality of using home telehealth to promote the self-management of complex, chronic mental health conditions among veterans. In this retrospective study of 4,999 veterans receiving telemedicine, researchers found improvements to health-related quality of life, including 50 percent fewer hospitalizations and reduced medical costs, compared with a control group of 183,872 vets who did not receive telemedicine.
A randomized clinical trial published in JAMA Psychiatry looked specifically at post-traumatic stress disorder, finding that telemedicine-based collaborative care helps to relieve PTSD symptoms and severity for military veterans living in areas without access to VA clinics.
“Telemedicine gives rural veterans access to the specialized PTSD treatments that are offered by the VA,” says lead author John Fortney, PhD, a research health science specialist at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle. “Interactive video technology allows rural veterans to receive specialized PTSD treatment in their local primary care clinic.”
Veterans participating in the trial remotely had access to a complete team of healthcare professionals. Says Fortney, “The telepsychiatrist, telepsychologist, telephone care manager, and telephone pharmacist got together once a week to discuss new patients and patients’ progress.”
As an adjunct therapy alongside traditional pharmacological treatments, digital psychotherapy was a key element for these veterans, who received medications for PTSD just as they would have at in-person doctor appointments.
“Many VA prescriptions are mailed to the veteran’s home,” says Fortney, adding, “I would say that medication management by a telepsychiatrist and counseling by a telepsychologist augment and complement one another.”
Computerized psychotherapies, or CPTs as they’re known in the field, are well on their way to becoming a first-line mental health intervention among veterans, and they are likely to catch on among the general public as well. As technology advances to keep us better connected than ever before, such mobile services will continue to grow, helping veterans and others to get the help they need—virtually anywhere.
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