Empowering Patients with Virtual Care

Joel Barthelemy

My dad was a U.S. Army veteran of both World War II and the Korean War, to which he lost much of his hearing. His retirement years in St. Cloud included monthly visits to audiology specialists at the Veterans Health Administration (VA) hospital at Fort Snelling near Minneapolis. Dad would wake up at 5:30 a.m., drive to the VA bus stop in St. Cloud, and ride two hours to his appointment. He’d wait to see his audiologist. Once seen, he’d wait around the rest of the day for his 85-mile bus ride north. It was usually a 13-hour day.

Mind you, Dad lived less than a mile from the most beautiful VA hospital in Minnesota. But it had no audiology specialist. He took an entire day out of his month to fine tune his hearing so he could communicate with his grandkids. That bothered me.

In 2002, I decided to start a company that took audiology systems and telehealth systems and merged them into one, creating the ability to literally do remote audiology. Unfortunately, my dad passed before they placed the station in St. Cloud, but until his death he would bring my case studies to anyone who would listen to a proud dad.

The Veterans Health Administration (VA) became an early adopter of telemedicine. Previously, thousands of veterans lived too far from the specialists they needed, and often missed appointments or didn’t seek care. VA facilities were overrun with a patient roster they couldn’t handle. By 2016, more than 702,000 veterans annually received care via telehealth. The next year, the VA announced regulatory changes to facilitate the use of telemedicine, as well as the creation of innovative virtual care programs.

Telehealth helped save lives when White House Medical Unit (WHMU) staffers were visiting Peru’s Andes Mountains. Lt. Col. James Jones, the physician assistant to the President’s physician and director of the medical evaluation and treatment unit at the White House, was on a three-day detail hiking in Peru. He used telehealth to treat a Secret Service agent and two U.S. students, all of whom suffered altitude sickness throughout the trip. Lt. Col Jones relied on the telehealth kit to evaluate all three patients and communicate with doctors back home. Once he stabilized the patients, he coordinated their evacuations and treatments.

As these innovative examples show, telemedicine has made healthcare potentially accessible everywhere. With the right equipment, software and connectivity, care can be delivered to patients in even the most difficult-to-reach spots and the most challenging environments.

My own life has changed in ways I never anticipated. I enjoy meeting providers and patients whose stories of struggle often go untold, and leaving their lives healthier, more supported and more connected. #IHeartHIT