As part of the Army's continued commitment to meeting the health care needs of Soldiers, the U.S. Army Medical Department has embarked on a new behavioral health care initiative involving the use of Video-Teleconferencing to screen and assess Soldiers following their return from theater.

The Virtual Behavioral Health Pilot Program (VBHP) was first introduced in Hawaii at Tripler Army Medical Center in November 2009. It is part of a comprehensive program designed to augment services during the Deployment Cycle Support process to ensure that all Soldiers receive behavioral health screenings. In Hawaii, Soldiers assigned to a battalion-sized unit at Schofield Barracks were among the first in the Army to participate in the program.

In the coming weeks, the Western Regional Medical Command, through a joint venture with the Pacific Regional Medical Command, will begin offering virtual behavioral health screenings to Soldiers at Fort Richardson in Alaska. This will be the first phase of a gradual implementation of the VBHP in the Western Region, which will include Fort Lewis.

The objective of the program is to provide uniform contact, via face-to-face or the VBHP, with all redeploying Soldiers, in order to identify care requirements early, and help promote a cultural change of Soldiers' views of behavioral health.

"The quicker we can get them in for behavioral health intervention, the sooner we can address any issues that may be present," said Dr. Lawrence Edwards, Ph.D., chief of Behavioral Health for the Western Regional Medical Command. "The longer we wait," he added, "the more likely those issues are to get worse."

According to Edwards, "The implementation of the VBHP at Fort Richardson will involve a brigade-sized unit and will take place around the February/March timeframe."

How will it work at Fort Richardson'

Prior to redeployment, the unit's chain of command will coordinate, from theater, with the Military Treatment Facility to set up dates for the screenings, and provide recommendations on Soldiers they consider to be at risk.

The VBHP screening process will be incorporated into the Deployment Cycle Support process, which will take place approximately 14-21 days after redeployment, and prior to Soldiers taking block leave.

"It's usually during those three to four weeks following a deployment when things come up," Edwards explained. "If the screening is done some time before block leave, we can provide Soldiers with educational materials that explain what is normal, what's not normal, a list of things they should watch for, and a referral to BH services, if necessary."

What's involved'

The first part of the process will involve having Soldiers complete a brief, computer-based questionnaire that pertains to BH symptoms they may have experienced during deployment. The information from the questionnaire will then be electronically forwarded to a BH provider at one of two offsite military treatment facilities. There will, however, be several BH providers on-site.

Soldiers will then be directed to a private booth where they will engage in a 15 to 20 minute screening interview, via virtual technology, with a behavioral health clinician stationed at Tripler AMC in Hawaii, or Madigan AMC located at Fort Lewis. If it is determined that the Soldier needs additional BH assistance, a follow up appointment will be scheduled at that time. The follow up appointment may be done via the VBHP or face-to-face at the local MTF.

Edwards pointed out that these screenings are separate from the regular pre-and-post deployment screenings that Soldiers routinely participate in. However, he quickly acknowledged that some Soldiers may perceive this program as something else being added to an already long list of things they have to do when they redeploy.

"It may be seen that way, but we're just trying to get eyes-on a little bit earlier just in case there are issues that come up," he said.

VBHP & Fort Lewis

The process at Fort Lewis will be very similar to that at Fort Richardson, but on a much larger scale. As one of the Army's Power Projection Platforms, several thousand Soldiers are scheduled to begin redeploying to Fort Lewis in the near future. Edwards said that plans are currently underway to ensure that during the DCS process that every one of those Soldiers receives a BH screening by an on-site provider or via the VBHP.

So far, feedback from those who have participated in the program in Hawaii has been very favorable. One battalion commander there stated, "At first we thought this was just another time-consuming event placed on our Soldiers during redeployment. But I will tell you now, this is time well spent," Col. Walter Piatt, commander, 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Inf. Div.

Another commander stated that the Soldiers who went through the program, "seemed more comfortable with the computer interface than the face-to-face screening."

As the Western Region gears up to standardize and roll out the VBHP throughout the rest of region, Edwards added that additional BH providers will be hired to support the program's growth.

Future plans for this program may soon encompass Army-wide implementation.