Video tech aids VA health care

As part of its ongoing efforts to make its medical facilities more competitive with commercial health care providers the Department of Veterans Affairs has installed videoconferencing equipment at hundreds of its medical centers and clinics to run applications ranging from telemedicine to distance learning programs for nurses.

Ronald Sidis videoconferencing/telemedicine coordinator at the Veterans Health Administration's medical center in Portland Ore. said hospitals and clinics in his region are using "roll-about" videoconferencing systems to conduct meetings perform psychiatric evaluations conduct training classes for nurses present lectures by physicians for their colleagues and perform diagnoses on patients at other locations.

Ray Snow chief of the FTS 2000 Division at the VA's Office of Telecommunications said the proliferation of video at VA hospitals represents the next wave of technology that will help personnel perform their mission. "We foresee that desktop video and roll-about systems will be as common in the next few years as PCs are today " Snow said. "A lot of the administrative functions that used to be done by audio telecommunications are now done by video. This cuts down on travel and time."

Susan Young a VA account manager at Sprint said her company has helped install videoconferencing systems at about 200 VA sites in the last three years. She said the systems have allowed the staffs at VA health care facilities that lack resources and certain types of medical expertise to benefit from the resources and knowledge that exist at other facilities.

Young added that the systems offer tangible benefits to patients as well. "Right now many geriatric patients have to be bused to VA hospitals sometimes for three- to five-hour trips " she said. "The ability to use videoconferencing to reach these patients without having to physically transport them is less traumatic for the patient. It is also less cumbersome for the doctors who sometimes have to travel to the patients."

Snow said VA hospitals also have direct and switched-video connections to university and state hospitals in their regions to share expertise and research with the staffs at those locations. The systems also connect to those installed at the Veterans Benefits Administration where the technology is generally used to conduct hearings for veterans who are appealing rulings on their claims for benefits.

The VA buys much of its videoconferencing services from Sprint through the company's FTS 2000 contract with the General Services Administration.

Although the VA purchases most of its telecommunications services from AT&T's FTS 2000 contract AT&T was unable to offer the service to some of the VA regions within the time frame that users needed Snow said. He added that Sprint's service costs significantly less than AT&T's.

Snow said the federal agency will eventually expand the technology even further.

For example he said the agency is considering the possibility of installing remote video units at patients' homes to monitor their health regularly without the need for any travel. He said this could decrease the need to force patients into nursing homes by providing a close watch over them while they are in their homes.

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