KHI News Service

VA poised to expand telemedicine for Kansas vets

Two-year pilot's success could lead to a model for the nation, officials say

By Mike Shields | November 13, 2012

After a successful, two-year pilot project, Veterans Administration officials today said their telemedicine partnership with the University of Kansas Medical Center is poised to expand across the state with the goal of putting mental health services within easier reach of Kansas veterans.

They also said the program — the first of its kind — could serve as a national model, if all goes as expected.

"This is the initial one. This is the trailblazer," said Dr. William Patterson, director of the VA Heartland Network, which is in Kansas and Missouri.

For the past two years, officials said, KU and the VA have partnered at a clinic in Garden City equipped with a telemedicine site that allows veterans from western Kansas who have mental health problems to connect with VA doctors in Wichita.

The VA and KU are now ready to expand the services to other sites around the state, starting with mental health services and expanding into other types of medical care as soon as possible, officials said.

KU already has 80 telemedicine sites in Kansas, which are equipped with high-definition television and other gear that allow patients and their medical providers in relatively remote hospitals to interact with doctors and other specialists at the university medical center.

The VA intends to piggyback on the KU system, connecting veterans with VA providers in Wichita and elsewhere. Officials said privacy protocols and other details still needed to be negotiated with officials at each of the telemedicine locations, which would slow the planned expansion of the program.

But they said they were optimistic that within two years, a veteran in any part of the state could be spared traveling long distances for certain types of care.

The project expansion was announced at a press conference called by Gov. Sam Brownback at his Statehouse office. The governor was joined at the event by Patterson; Dr. Ryan Spaulding, KU Medical Center's director of telemedicine; Adjutant General Lee Tafanelli; and Rep. Tom Sloan, a Lawrence Republican who has been the Legislature's leading proponent of telemedicine.

Also attending were Dr. Ganya Hematillake, chief of the medical staff at the Wichita VA Hospital; Robert McBee, a VA telehealth manager; and Mary Beth Warren, executive director of the university's area health education centers.

McBee, in a follow-up interview, said the system will use a secure Internet connection to link the sites with providers elsewhere. Using the Internet, he said, allowed the VA patient information to be displayed to medical staff in remote locations without permitting them access to the VA's secure patient database.

The VA identifies its patients by their Social Security numbers, officials said, and patient privacy is closely guarded. Each telemedicine site has to agree and be equipped for following the protocols aimed at protecting patient information.

McBee said the novelty of the VA's Kansas project, which might make it a useful model elsewhere, was that it uses the Internet to allow patient information exchange without requiring the melding of diverse and complex patient databases such as those at the VA, Department of Defense and increasingly among private or public health information exchanges.

"This is a clear example of how federal and state agencies can cooperate to deliver improved mental and health care services in a more cost-effective manner," Brownback said of the initiative.

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