Virtual Health Care

Mary Ann Ruiz, Virtual Health Care coordinator at CRDAMC’s Russell L. Collier Health Clinic, examines Katelyn Sepeda’s ear with the otoscope peripheral on the clinic’s Virtual Health Care cart. The otoscope’s camera provides the remotely-located virtual health provider with a clear and concise digital image to review and save in the patient’s medical record.

Innovations in virtual health technology have revolutionized battlefield medicine by providing immediate access to vital medical care where and when it’s needed, from anywhere in the world to support the medical readiness of the warfighter.

Those technological advances have been adapted to also support the beneficiaries in garrison by allowing Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center and other military treatment facilities to deliver immediate access to care, transcending distance and geographical challenges.

“Virtual health is not a totally new concept in healthcare as hospitals have been using various electronic, information, imaging, and communication technologies in their delivery of healthcare for years. However, as the technology evolves, the benefits of virtual health in a wide array of applications improve exponentially, Maj. Jenny Hayes, former chief of CRDAMC’s Clinical Operations Division and current director of administration for the Army Virtual Medical Center at Brooke Army Medical Center, San Antonio, said.

“The biggest benefit to our beneficiaries is improved access to care,” Hayes said. Virtual health allows us to leverage capacity, meaning we can tap into medical providers at other facilities to see our patients here in cases where we may have limited providers or don’t have a provider for certain specialties. By seeing your provider virtually, you then don’t have to wait months or travel long distances for an appointment.”

Typically, during a virtual health appointment, patients meet with their provider via a computer in a private room. Virtual health carts are used to enable providers to diagnose and treat patients using electronic peripherals transmitting real-time vital signs and images. Various peripherals attached to the carts allow providers to perform typical functions virtually such as listening to a patient’s heartbeat.

“What’s great about the virtual health visit is that the peripherals’ cameras provide a much clearer picture as the provider examines the back at the tonsils or ear. Not only that, but the doctor can take a still photo of a particular view, which can be enlarged, if necessary, and saved in the patient’s medical record for documentation and comparisons. Another big benefit of having digital images is that the provider can now use the saved images to consult another specialist for further medical advice, if desired,” Hayes said.

In addition to increasing access to care and improving quality of treatment, virtual healthcare is the epitome of convenience for the patient, Hayes said, saving valuable time for patients and doctors.

“Tricare Online’s Patient Portal is a prime example of that. You can do so many things from the convenience of your computer such as access your lab results, view and download your health records, request appointments and order refills on prescriptions. With secure messaging, you can email your primary care provider directly,” Hayes said.

Despite the many benefits of virtual health, Hayes acknowledges that it is a culture change for some patients and providers who prefer the in-person visits.

“It’s interesting that initially there were doubts that behavioral healthcare services could be conducted virtually. Providers thought patients would not connect well with them if they were talking over a video screen,” Hayes said. “That’s actually been proven to be absolutely opposite. It has been very popular with the patients. Many of our patients are comfortable communicating that way and prefer it over actually having the provider in the room.

“I also find it a bit surprising that internal medicine’s older population, who we would assume would not be comfortable with the technology, are actually frequent users of the aspects of virtual health.”

For the future, virtual health will continue to improve and expand its use in both garrison and deployed settings in the future such as providing virtual health video visits in patients’ homes, growing the global tele-consultations portal to enable specialists to support other providers anywhere in the world and remote health monitoring for patients with chronic conditions.

“More and more, there’s a huge paradigm shift to understand all that virtual health can do to improve the delivery and quality of care,” Hayes said. “Virtual health is about leveraging provider capabilities, high-tech virtual healthcare carts, Tricare Online resources and any other capability we have to reach out to provide patients with the right care, wherever and whenever they need it.”

All Tricare beneficiaries age 18 years or older, including active duty service members, retired service personnel and their families, are eligible to use Tricare Online Patient Portal services and information to manage their healthcare needs. Access the secure Tricare Online Patient Portal at www.TRICAREonline.com to review and download your health record, make appointments and sign up for Secure Messaging.