COVID-19 Puts VA Telehealth App To The Test

In an attempt to deliver reliable, accessible care to veterans, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) launched an app in the early aughts that enables video visits with a doctor. As the nation’s largest healthcare system, the VA has over 150 hospitals. However, much of its target audience lives in rural areas, where access to VA facilities is anything but easy.

With the Telehealth app, veterans can participate in remote visits with their healthcare provider, which should improve long-term care for those who can’t travel to a VA hospital on a weekly or even monthly basis. While Telehealth saw a massive 235% increase in use from 2018 to 2019, it seems the system was unprepared for the recent influx of interest brought on by the shelter-at-home orders due to COVID-19.

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Many patients and providers have been self-quarantining since March, which has led to a massive uptick in Telehealth use. The app averaged about 2,000 virtual appointments per day this time last year, compared with the nearly 20,000 current daily visits. Tech hiccups are becoming all-too-familiar as the system races to catch up with increased demand. Users have reported remote visits with video but no audio, or vise versa, and poor overall quality.

The VA received $2 billion from Congress in April, which is being used to support the fast transition to virtual visits being “the norm.” IT issues like sup-par bandwidth and slow servers have been the primary setbacks so far. Providers and patients alike have encountered problems even logging into sessions without encountering error messages or buffering issues. Once users successfully log in, there are frequent instances where sessions are dropped, and people are involuntarily logged off.

With so many new variables at play, it’s difficult to narrow down where the issues originate. A patient’s weak cellular signal can hinder an appointment as much as a slow Telehealth server. FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom are possible short-term alternatives for making sure patients receive the care they need while Telehealth works out its kinks. Regardless of possible problems, Telehealth opens the door for veterans to experience continuity of care amidst a global pandemic.