By Sean KimmonsMarch 31, 2017
FORT MEADE, Md. (Army News Service) -- The Army has given its medical services a booster shot, allowing more Soldiers and family members to get care virtually and in-person, the Army's surgeon general said Wednesday.
"Over the last year we've launched aggressive efforts to expand access to improve quality for all who rely on us," Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Nadja West told the Senate appropriations subcommittee on defense.
Testifying in front of the same panel last year, she said she vowed to create nearly 380,000 additional primary and specialty care appointments in 2016. On Wednesday, she said they had surpassed that number with over 830,000 more appointments.
"I'm very proud to share with you that we've exceeded that goal by more than 200 percent," she said.
The advent of virtual health care, an initiative West described as promising, is one of the reasons Army medicine has been so successful in expanding its services. She touted the Army as a leader in virtual health care, with services spanning 30 countries and territories covering 30 clinical specialties.
There are also dozens of pilots and programs currently in their virtual health care efforts, which include emergency, primary and secondary care, and pre- and post-surgical consultations.
Other potential uses of virtual health care, she noted, could help medics remotely monitor a patient's vital signs or even treat a combat casualty.
"We see virtual health as a means to revolutionize access whether in garrison facilities, at our patient's home or the point of injury," she told lawmakers.
The initiative has already seen encouraging results. In the Army's Regional Health Command-Europe last year, virtual health care saved over $1.3 million in travel-related expenses and more than 2,000 work and school days for Soldiers and beneficiaries, according to her written testimony.
Troops downrange are also benefiting since deployed providers are able to use teleconsultation, known as "Ask-a-Doc," she added.
Another aspect of improving access to care has been a focus on mental health. The Army's Embedded Behavioral Health program continues to place specialists down to the unit level, making care more accessible to Soldiers at their workplace.
There are now over 60 behavioral health teams with 450 providers assisting more than 30 brigade combat teams, among many other units, according to her testimony.
Since the program started in 2012, she noted, 45 percent fewer Soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder have received prescriptions for a potentially addictive group of painkillers called benzodiazepines.
"When you have embedded behavioral health, it makes Soldiers more likely to want to see their behavioral health provider without having to go to a facility," she said. "They're right there in their units."
Specialists are also helping students, with plans to push them out to 100 on-post schools across 18 installations this year. Behavioral health screenings are even being implemented during primary care visits.
Such efforts that attempt to catch symptoms early on may be working. Last year, she noted, there were 67,000 fewer inpatient bed days for behavioral health conditions compared to 2012, about a 40 percent drop.
"Our service members, our family members are getting more care because we are putting those assets forward," she testified.
Furthering quality care in the Army, she said, will depend on stable funding from Congress, which has yet to pass this fiscal year's budget. The current continuing resolution nears its expiration on April 28.
West stressed that the Army's strength is not in its weapons systems, but its people. But for her organization to be ready to provide a full spectrum of modern care in combat and at home, predictable and consistent funding is required.
"Readiness is foremost and we must maintain the ability to flex with our service to provide the right capability while continuing to meet or exceed national quality care standards in our garrison environments," she said. "This is our sacred trust with our nation."
(Follow Sean Kimmons on Twitter: @KimmonsARNEWS)