LANDSTUHL, Germany -- From Periodic Health Assessments to in-depth to full examinations, the role of virtual health in terms of medical readiness across the military branches is apparent now more than ever.
The concept of virtual healthcare is similar to modern social media communications or video conferencing, using audio-video technology to enable communication between a healthcare provider and the patient. For years, the health care industry has utilized this technology to accommodate patient schedules, increase access to care and deliver virtual real-time patient care.
During COVID-19 operations, military medical treatment facilities across the Regional Health Command Europe have multiplied their virtual health utilization five times over to continue providing patient care in accordance with the Department of Defense Health Protection Condition measures, which called for the reduction of face-to-face routine medical services and elective surgical procedures. Moreover, the emphasis on physical distancing in medical settings has increased the need for alternative solutions for delivering patient care.
“Virtual health allows me to see patients from far away, who might not have access to a specialist, especially in remote areas like Africa or Asia, where specialty care is really hard to come by,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Brendt Feldt, a surgeon at LRMC’s Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic. “(Virtual health) gives me that face-to-face connection with a patient that I can't get over the telephone, and it gives us that interaction we like to have with our patients so that we can start to build a good relationship with them.”
Feldt adds the service delivers the essential first meeting with a patient, allowing both parties to discuss possible diagnosis, treatment options that might be able to be done locally, or if travel to LRMC is required.
“Virtual health is a fantastic program that not only helps the joint warfighters, but also their families,” said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Robert Cornfeld, medical director for the Virtual Medical Center Europe at LRMC. “Virtual health literally brings the medical center to the point of care where it's needed. Using today's technology, we can now go directly to (the beneficiary’s) house and bring the services and specialties of LRMC to their front door.”
The Defense Health Agency, which oversees all U.S. military MTFs, plans to further support virtual health initiatives during COVID-19 operations and beyond, through infrastructure developments where required.
“There are a lot of things that can still be done via virtual health that you might not expect. For me, as an ENT surgeon, there’s a great camera system (at certain medical facilities) that allows me to look in a patient’s ear and do a relatively thorough exam,” said Feldt. “It saves the patient time by not having to drive or take a train or even a plane to come see us. During COVID-19 operations, virtual health has really allowed me to still see patients, continue to manage some outpatient diseases and provide patients the kind of care they would normally receive if I saw them in person.”
Additionally, virtual appointments with providers allow for beneficiaries to comply with COVID-19 stay-at-home recommendations, limiting the spread of COVID-19 and keeping families safe.
“As we are all practicing physical distancing, not only do patients want to stay at home, providers and support staff are increasingly at home as well. Our virtual health processes are flexible, so that not only can the patient be at home, but the provider themselves can actually be at home,” said Cornfeld. “Last year, we performed over 7,200 video visits to houses stretching everywhere across Europe and Africa. We also had service members we take care of in the Arctic Circle, Central Asia, all of whom use virtual health for their care.”
Cornfeld explains virtual health is delivered a number of ways including telephone appointments, synchronous video appointments and can take place anywhere the patient has a solid internet connection.
Validating virtual health’s impact during COVID-19, appointments have increased over five times the normal rate, maximizing physical distancing as recommended.
At LRMC, 42 specialty care services provide virtual health appointments while more medical providers continuously train to grow capabilities in other areas, including primary care.
Although convenient, Feldt emphasizes that certain matters may still require face-to-face exams, such as discussing more sensitive topics about patient health. But overall, counseling, preoperation visits and general questions can be discussed via the secure virtual meeting space.
“Virtual health is a tremendous force multiplier for readiness by keeping the warfighter on their mission instead of having to come to the medical facility for health care delivery,” said Cornfeld. “That's our job in military medicine: to conserve the fighting force. If I can keep that soldier doing their job instead of having to come see me in the clinic, that's a fantastic win not only for the soldier keeping them doing their job, but a tremendous win for the combatant commanders as well.”