VA program aims for electronic links with rural hospitals

Collaboration could mean less travel for isolated rural veterans in need of health care

0 | Agencies, Hospitals, Rural Health

— Veterans in rural areas have different health care needs than their urban counterparts and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is working to improve services to them, a Utah doctor said during a conference of the National Rural Health Association.

For example, the VA is collaborating with rural, critical access hospitals on the exchange of electronic medical records so that patient records from the VA can be shared with the hospitals closer to veterans' homes and vice versa.

“The VA is becoming increasingly aware of the needs of rural veterans and now is focusing on how to resolve those needs,” said Dr. Byron Bair, Western Region Director of the Veterans Rural Health Resource Center in Salt Lake City.

Bair, also a professor of geriatric internal medicine at the University of Utah, said about three million veterans enrolled in the VA Health Care System live in rural areas. They range from aging veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam to younger veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A significant number are Native Americans.

Rural veterans often live in isolated areas with few health providers, requiring them to travel long distances for care, Bair said.

The VA established its Office of Rural Health in 2006. The office has a pilot program underway in Moab, Utah which aims at close collaboration between the VA and rural hospitals.

“In collaboration with the (VA) Office of Technology, we’re looking at how to connect electronically critical access hospitals and their providers to the VA network of electronic medical records,” Bair said. “It’s basically a replication of pilots that have gone on in more urbanized areas, which have been extremely successful.”

Bair’s talk was part of a four-day conference held by the association at the Hyatt Regency Crown Center. Other topics included a Washington legislative update, the impact of health reform in rural communities, revenue strategies in rural health clinics, electronic health records, social media networking and telemedicine.

One of the sessions dealing with telemedicine focused on the eICU Program Outreach Services of Saint Luke’s Health System in Kansas City, which uses telemedicine technologies to collaborate with rural hospitals.