This week Landstuhl Regional Medical Center recognized the Top 10 specialty clinics that conducted the most Virtual Health encounters in 2015. And the winners are:

Sleep Medicine -- 582
General Surgery -- 308
Nutrition Care Division -- 229
Orthopedics -- 211
ENT -- 142
Dermatology -- 122
Podiatry -- 91
Neurosurgery -- 87
Behavioral Health -- 82
Allergy/Immunology -- 79

"Virtual Health has become an exciting way for patients to connect to their specialty provider for both new and follow-up visits, and we wanted to recognize our clinics that are maximizing the Virtual Health experience for our beneficiaries," said Col. (Dr.) Kirk Waibel, Medical Director for LRMC Virtual Health. As a full-time allergist at LRMC, Waibel routinely uses Virtual Health to connect to patients located throughout Belgium, Germany and Italy.

For Dr. Hunter Hearn, whose Sleep Medicine Clinic led the way with the most virtual health visits in 2015, he said Virtual Health has "greatly enhanced access to our patients that are geographically separated, saving the military significant money and travel time."

The General Surgery Clinic has witnessed similar results, said Col. (Dr.) Brian Sonka, noting that in-person visits by outpatient elective surgery patients has reduced from about three to only one for many patients. And Virtual Health has proven equally effective for patients at the Nutrition Care Division, where Lt. Col. James Pullium said Virtual Health has "provided our patients with enhanced service, flexibility and appointment convenience."

Virtual Health has made great strides at LRMC, but it's still a learning process for many beneficiaries. While patients may be aware they can connect with their provider through telephone calls or secure messaging, many patients are not aware they may also be able to see their specialty provider through Virtual Health. "Virtual Health is similar to Facetime or Skype but has the tremendous benefit of a trained nurse with the patient during the visit to facilitate a very robust experience," added Waibel.

While Virtual Health within Regional Health Command Europe started in 2009, it has dramatically increased over the past two years with now 40 specialties participating. One of Waibel's goals this year is to increase awareness of this option for patients, particularly those located in far-away health clinics who often drive for hours and miss time from work or school to coming to LRMC.

In 2015, approximately 3 percent of enrolled beneficiaries at participating Army Health Clinics in Belgium, Germany and Italy utilized Virtual Health to connect to a specialist at LRMC. Patients using Virtual Health reported an extremely positive experience, with 98 percent of patients recommending Virtual Health to a friend, as well as 98% stating they would use it again.

With such a high satisfaction rate, Waibel said he knows that more patients will want to take advantage of Virtual Health as they become aware of the option. The first step in using Virtual Health, said Waibel, is when your doctor places a specialty referral for you, ask whether your provider thinks it would be a good idea to have the visit done virtually. Then the specialty clinic reviewing the consult will also determine whether they are able to see you virtually.

"We know that sometimes either the patient or the specialist would rather see each other in person rather than virtually," said Waibel. When making their appointment with a specialty clinic, they should ask whether their appointment can be done virtually. The benefit of a virtual health appointment is the patient only has to go to their own local Army Health Clinic. There they are checked in like they are seeing their regular health care professional, but they able to connect with a specialist are in a quiet and secure room in their own clinic.

"Hearing what patients think about these visits is really enjoyable," said Waibel. Anonymous comments from patients have common themes with patients noting the experience is very rewarding, it saves time and money, and is very similar to seeing the specialist in person.

Our team is exciting about positive feedback from both our specialists, and most importantly, the patients who we care for," said Waibel. The team's slogan is "Virtual Health -- Is it right for you?"