“Telemental” Healthcare Now Offered Through Salem V-A

Dr. Anjali Varma (at the head of table) leads a discussion on the benefits and challenges of "Telemental- Health."
Dr. Anjali Varma (at the head of table) leads a discussion on the benefits and challenges of "Telemental- Health."
Dr. Anjali Varma (at the head of table) leads a discussion on the benefits and challenges of “Telemental- Health.”About 75 mental health professional attended a Mental Health Summit held at the Salem VA Medical Center last week.  They discussed such issues as meeting the needs of veterans and their family members and telemental health and the care of veterans.            

Dr. Anjali Varma is a psychiatrist with the Medical Center and says “Telemental health is basically using teleconferencing, video-teleconferencing to a remote area for provision of mental health or general health services.”  Some doctors in various medical practices throughout the country use video–teleconferencing for physical health issues (telemedicine) and telemental health is an outgrowth of that.

Some people might be a bit apprehensive at first about getting mental health treatment over a computer but she says sometimes it’s just a mental block.  That’s a big challenge, especially when dealing with older vets.

 “I don’t want to see somebody at the computer; I want to see somebody face to face.  I think that’s a huge mental barrier for some of the older veterans.  Younger folks who are used to being on Facebook and computer(s) and Skypeing, it’s so much more comfortable for them. But over time, if they get started on it and they like the provider, they see that they develop the same kind of rapport that they would in a face to face visit and they get the health care that they need.  Then with the results, it definitely gets better with each session.”

But Varma doesn’t think health care professionals should only treat those who are familiar with the technology at the expense of those who aren’t.

‘I wouldn’t wait to get to the older folks because some of our older folks, if they might not be doing it themselves, have other family members who can get them familiar with Skype and things at home. They might want to come with their family member for the first visit for overcoming the initial anxiety but I wouldn’t wait that long to get the older veterans enrolled, unless they have a hearing issue which is an impediment in communication even for a face to face visit.  So, I don’t see any reason why we should hold back on providing these wonderful services to our older veterans.”

She says telemental health is an advantage in some areas of far Southwestern Virginia where taking public transportation to the medical center isn’t an option.

“That is the biggest advantage and patients are really appreciative of the cost and the time that they save by being able to get these services at a local CBOC (Community Based Outpatient Clinic) or a local CSB (Community Services Board) as opposed to having to come all the way to the Salem VA Medical Center.”

The Salem V-A currently offers telemental health to 300 patients but that number could reach 1,000 in the coming years.  The treatment is currently offered when the patients go to an outpatient clinic or Community Services Board in their community where there are several secure computers set up.  But Varma hopes eventually to offer the practice in the veteran’s home.

 – Beverly Amsler