Meadville Tribune

October 26, 2012

High-tech care ready for local vets' care

By Konstantine Fekos
MEADVILLE TRIBUNE

VERNON TOWNSHIP — Medical professionals working in the new Crawford County Veterans Affairs Clinic are encouraging area veterans and their families to stay local and take advantage of the fresh facilities and cutting-edge technology expanding in their own backyard.

Located previously in the Park Avenue Plaza just outside of downtown Meadville, this branch of the Erie VA Medical Center has nearly doubled in size, with final measurements approximately 6,500 square feet, and resides at 16954 Conneaut Lake Road behind the Presbyterian Church of the Redeemer, across the highway from Kmart.

“It’s not too far from the old clinic and we have room for more primary care staff on site,” said Sarah Gudgeon, public affairs specialist. “We also have room to expand our Telehealth program.”

Telehealth is the talk of the clinic and its parent company, featuring a 20 percent inclusion rate among the facility’s current clientele. It’s a major into-the-future upgrade for the clinic, in operation since 1998, that helps thousands of local vets a year — almost 3,000 last year.

The new program functions as a combination of online telecommunications and standard medical procedures, offering a digital link between patients in Crawford County and specialists in Erie and any participating medical center, potentially across the country.

“Telecommunication offers a safe way for patients to see their providers,” said Stacy Fritts, supervisor for optometry and Telehealth.

“There’s no live broadcasting, no video recording and it saves patients and providers time and travel.”

Fritts compared the experience as similar to Skype video chat, except in greater quality and with the addition of medical equipment capable of performing a head-to-toe assessment and sending the information directly from a patient to a medical care provider outside Crawford County and beyond.

“It’s not mandated,” Fritts added. “It’s just an option for patients’ convenience. We explain the procedure to new patients and if they are uncomfortable with it, we still offer traditional care facilities.”

Exam rooms, laboratories and other conventional spaces still line the clinic’s halls, allowing local veterans to receive traditional care.

“We’ve had positive feedback from participating veterans,” said Fritts. “It’s cost-effective and allows more therapy over a more consistent period of time, decreasing recovery times.”

Telehealth also allows the clinic and its patients to reach out to medical specialists well outside personal contact.

“Several institutions have primary care carts,” said Theresa Allen, Telehealth clinical technician.

“There are two screens so the patient can see the provider and the other screen can be used for electronic charting.”

“Once we finish the cart’s configuration, we could connect and talk to specialists in just about every VA clinic nationwide, from Hawaii to Alaska, you name it,” said Fritts. “We can get information from specialty clinics that we may not have on site; we just have to have a cart on both sides.”

This telemedicine cart is also equipped with a magnifying lens on a wand which can capture close up images of a patient’s skin and comes with attachments to examine the ears, eyes and nose.

Imagine a tongue depressor that can take pictures.

“It can help search for oral cancer, it can examine the ears and throat, it’s a really nice service we offer,” said Allen.



More service, quicker

While the concept of telemedicine isn’t new to the clinic, the new facilities allow for three different units, getting more patients serviced with the potential for quicker efficiency.

One room contains the cart, one has a video conference-style setup with a greater screen and rotating webcam, and the third is able to send retinal scans and imaging for almost immediate download in Erie.

“This is patient care; we can facilitate it any way we want it,” said Fritts. “Even if we needed to lay hands on patients, there are ways for our technicians to get that information.”

Special stethoscopes and other instruments can be plugged into the telemedicine cart, allowing providers miles away to hear a patient’s heart beating in Crawford County.

“We’ll be running on a high quality bandwidth,” said Allen. “Medical staff on the other end will be able to hear heart sounds (and receive other diagnostic information) all with good information without even being here.”

“We’re very excited about the care carts,” said Gudgeon. “This is health care in the 21st century.”

This technology expands beyond a one-on-one patient to provider service. A tele-capable conference room allows families or groups of patients to be involved with clinic clients.

“The Telehealth program has been going pretty strong for almost two years,” said Fritts. “Last year was the really big push for these technologies to expand nationally.”

The clinic hopes to have 50 percent patient inclusion in virtual care by 2015.

“As a nurse, I can see it in any health care situation,” Fritts added. “We’re also expanding behavioral health services. We can get counselors on screen for therapy groups like speech, weight management, diabetes; we can offer different educational classes.”

Clinic technicians also seek to expedite patient care and share resources and information with other Telehealth-connected facilities simultaneously.

“It’s all about making sure the patients are taken care of,” said Fritts. “We’re very excited about this program and we want as many people to know about it as possible.”

To spread the word and further encourage local veterans to take advantage of services, the clinic will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony and open house on Saturday at 10 a.m.

“We have such a larger number of returning veterans in Crawford County and an increasing number of Vietnam veterans coming forward with post traumatic stress disorder,” said Gudgeon. “There are still so many veterans who don’t take advantage of the clinic. All they have to do is bring in their DD 214 service discharge papers and see if they’re eligible for our services.”

The clinic is open from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.

- More information: Visit the Erie VA Medical Center website at www.erie.va.gov or call the Crawford County VA Clinic at (866) 962-3210.



Konstantine Fekos can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at kfekos@meadvilletribune.com.

YOU CAN GO

The public is welcome to tour the new Crawford County Veterans Affairs Clinic on Saturday.

The clinic is located at 16954 Conneaut Lake Road behind the Presbyterian Church of the Redeemer, across the highway from Kmart. A ribbon-cutting ceremony is at 10 a.m., followed by an open house.