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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

More And More Veterans Visit Their Doctors Via Telemedicine

Charlotte Albright
Leslie Fernyhaut demonstrates a throat exam by telemedicine in a van parked outside the VA Medical Center in White River Junction.

More and more members of the military are coming back from deployments needing medical attention, and Vietnam-era veterans are aging. 

All that’s been putting strains on the Veterans Affairs medical system. One way the VA is improving access to care is by using telemedicine, so patients can consult doctors from a distance, via video. 

There was recently a demonstration of the evolving technology at the VA Medical Center open house in White River Junction.

Parked in front of the hospital, a large white van packed with up-to-date technology invited would-be patients to find out how telemedicine  works. 

Inside, Leslie Fernyhaut held a camera the size of a skinny flashlight, with a wooden tongue depressor attached. She slid the depressor towards the back of her throat to show what a doctor watching a TV screen —perhaps many miles away — would see. 

“That's my throat,” she chuckled, looking at the reddish tissue with two healthy tonsils. “It’s been on TV; it’s been all over the world.”

Fernyhaut travels widely, giving demos in this van for a technology company called Iron Bow. It provides much of the telemedicine equipment for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Appointments are getting more high-tech every day, as medical staff using tiny instruments conduct everything from hearing tests to pelvic exams. The results go directly to doctors and are filed in patient records in real time. 

Across the street from the demo van, in the VA's physical therapy department, a real video appointment was about to begin.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
A video monitor allows veteran Terry Hebert in Newport, Vt., to consult Candace Bennett, his physical therapist on staff at the White River Junction VA Medical Center. Bennett now lives in Missouri but continues to treat her VA patients via telemedicine.

Terry Hebert, a 60-year-old veteran, sat in front of a video camera with a technician at a VA clinic in Newport, Vermont . On his screen, he saw his physical therapist, Candace Bennett, who could also see him on her screen.  Hebert, who gave VPR permission to watch his appointment, has been having neck pain and numbness in his hands.

“How’s the numbness?” Bennett asked.

“I still have it, and quite honestly I can tell you … about two weeks ago I stopped doing this, all the therapy and the machine because my neck ached so badly I couldn’t stand it any more,” Hebert reported.

Physical therapy is a popular reason for telemedicine appointments, because patients who have had surgery or other mobility problems find it hard to drive to their therapist. Some, including sufferers with ALS, can even get video equipment installed in their homes.  Judy Audette coordinates telemedicine for the White River Junction VA. She says it’s improving access for veterans living far from the hospital.

“They might postpone care if they have to drive to White River, but if they can go just down the street to a clinic then they are more likely to seek care earlier, which does end up affecting outcomes," Audette said.

VA officials in White River say over 6,800 patients participated in telemedicine last year — 4,300 so far, this year. And while some patient and doctors still prefer face-to-face meetings, the technology seems to be gaining converts.

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