Virtual health care critical for Montana veterans

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Rural Montana veterans often get the short end of the stick when it comes to reliable, timely access to health care.

Just getting to the VA Medical Center at Fort Harrison, outside Helena, can present a major challenge for patients living in the isolated corners of Montana. From Lincoln County, for example, the drive to Fort Harrison is at least four hours one way — requiring patients to plan for and expense an overnight stay.

Accessing care virtually can also be problematic for rural patients with inadequate internet connectivity at home.

It’s a headache that often keeps veterans from seeking the heath care they need.

But that’s about to change for veterans living in far Northwest Montana.

On Wednesday, the VFW Post 6786 in downtown Eureka held a grand opening for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ first remote teletech exam room, dubbed the VA Atlas (Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations).

The exam room inside the Eureka VFW offers a small, private space for virtual appointments with physicians within the VA health network. Inside the “pod,” a patient sits across from a large screen where they can interact with a doctor who is equipped with a remote-controlled camera.

Technology allows the physician to zoom in on the patient, check bloodpressure or glucose, and assess other vitals — just as if they were in the room with the patient.

One VA representative at the Eureka event described the pod as something out of the future.

And he’s not wrong. Many experts believe that health care delivered through virtual “telehealth” methods is the next big thing.

In fact, the Office for the Advancement of Telehealth notes that virtual health care will be especially critical in remote areas that lack sufficient services, including specialty care — a description that covers much of Montana.

With the mission of bringing “VA care closer to home,” Atlas is certainly a worthwhile project. We suspect the Eureka location will mark the first of many to come across the nation if the care delivered meets expectations.

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— Kalispell Daily Inter Lake