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Department Of Veterans Affairs Thinks Telehealth Clinics May Help Vets In Rural Areas

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

About 5 million veterans live in rural America, and it is not always easy for them to access health care. The Department of Veterans Affairs says it may have an answer. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports from Eureka, Mont.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: About a thousand people live in this former logging town. It sits just seven miles from the Canadian border. Longtime resident Bob Davies is a 75-year-old Vietnam veteran. He likes it here because it's a long way from just about anything except mountains, forests and glaciers.

BOB DAVIES: Most people come here specifically because it's away from all the big cities, but the big cities are the only places that have the hospitals and stuff.

PRICE: And that lack is one of the downsides for veterans like him who live in and around Eureka. The town is 65 miles north of the nearest small VA clinic in Kalispell. Davies has been driving there for telehealth appointments with a doctor in another city who helps with his PTSD. And Eureka's nearly 260 miles from the nearest VA medical center, a long drive sometimes on ice-covered roads, sometimes with a few surprises.

DAVIES: In the spring and summertime, it's like running a gauntlet with the deer. Our service officer - he hit an elk one day, and it totaled his truck.

WILLIAM J SCHMITZ: All right, now I think it's about time to do a little snipping. OK.

PRICE: The man with the scissors is William J. "Doc" Schmitz, commander of the entire 1.6 million-member VFW. He's come all the way from New York to cut the ribbon on the first telehealth clinic in a VFW post.

SCHMITZ: OK. We've rehearsed this, so don't worry.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHMITZ: Just notice I still have the fingers.

PRICE: Telehealth lets health care professionals work with patients through things like video conferencing. Now, in a back room of Eureka's VFW post 6786, a telehealth clinic is packed in a futuristic white and gray pod. It's roughly the size of a utility shed, with pleasant lighting, chairs and a large screen with a video camera above. The VA is planning similar setups in American Legion posts, libraries and even Walmarts. It already tallies more than a million video appointments a year, many with veterans in their homes via the Internet. But some vets in remote areas, like Bob Davies, don't have broadband Internet service, or they might want more privacy than they can get at home. Dr. Ashish Jha is with the Harvard School of Public Health. He says telemedicine has limits.

ASHISH JHA: We have to know when telemedicine is effective and when we have to physically bring people in. That's a new area that we're still learning, I think. So if you see a patient who's having some chest discomfort, you know, when is it just a sprained muscle or when is it potentially early heart attack?

PRICE: Still, Dr. Jha is optimistic. He sees a day when telemedicine will help transform health care for everyone.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNOOP DOGG'S "GANGSTA'S LIFE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.