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Florida VA Center Finds New Uses for Telehealth in Treating PTSD

A VA hospital in Gainesville is using telehealth to connect hundreds of veterans living with PTSD to therapists who treat them through creative outlets like music, movement and art.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- Telehealth has proven its value in providing much-needed mental health services to Armed Forces members and veterans dealing with PTSD. Now a Florida VA center is tweaking that platform to give veterans access to a unique form of therapy.

The Gainesville-based Malcom Randall VA Medical Center is seeing positive results with its Telehealth Creative Arts Therapy program, in which veterans dealing with PTSD connect via virtual visits with therapists offering treatment through music, movement and visual arts.

"There are some indicators that different engagements in arts can lower your blood pressure and can be good for your heart rate," Dr. Chuck Levy, Chief of the Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Service at the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System and the program’s coordinator, recently told Florida Public Broadcasting Station KBPS.

"I would say that the body of evidence is thinner than it is for other practices," says Levy, who oversees a program that currently treats hundreds of veterans via telehealth. "But we need to be doing things now, so off we go."

The program is one of several telehealth services launched by the VA and Department of Defense to connect service members and veterans with healthcare outside of the often-crowded walls of the nearest VA hospital. Such programs also serve to improve access and health outcomes for veterans who can’t easily get to the nearest hospital or clinic or don’t want to go there.

That’s particularly true of veterans dealing with PTSD and other behavioral health issues. They often avoid hospitals and clinics and stay in their own homes, and respond better to telehealth and mHealth services that reach out to them at the time and place of their choosing.

In March, the VA announced the launch of a nationwide telehealth pilot program targeting veterans dealing with PTSD. Called the Telemedicine Outreach for PTSC (TOP) program, it uses community-based outpatient clinics (CBOCs) and phone- and video-based communications to connect with veterans in need of counseling.

“Long travel distances to urban areas can be a major barrier to care for rural veterans,” Dr. John Fortney, a research health scientist with the VA Puget Sound Health System and the pilot program’s coordinator, said in a press release. “In a prior trial, we were able to use telehealth technologies successfully to engage Veterans in evidence-based, trauma-focused therapy without their having to travel to a distant VA medical center.”

While the VA’s telehealth programs, bolstered by former Secretary Robert Shulkin’s ‘Anywhere to Anywhere’ program, aim to connect veterans to VA-sanctioned practitioners no matter where each lives, the department is opening up that platform to new care models, including nutrition and dietary services and creative therapy programs like Levy’s.

This helps Darlinda Reaves, a Navy veteran who’s taking visual art therapy treatment from her home in Jacksonville, more than two hours away from the Gainesville VA.

"I find it more relaxing," she told KBPS. "I'm really able to express myself more and really tell what's bothering me and what I'm going through without having to get that feeling of being in a hospital or doctor's office where if you say the wrong thing you're going to get judged as 'Oh my gosh, she's severely depressed we need to give her some drugs.'"

The Malcom Randall VA Medical Center’s Telehealth Creative Arts Therapy program has been so successful, in fact, that it has received a five-year grant to help other VA centers develop creative arts therapy programs. The current plan calls for an expansion of the program to 10 sites, including Fort Hood, Texas, Camp Pendleton, Calif., and Camp Lejeune, N.C.

"So often, what we need to do in helping patients with post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury is understanding their story from their perspective," Sara Kass, a retired Navy physician who saw the program at work at the Walter Reed National Medical Center National Intrepid Center of Excellence, told KBPS. "And the arts give us an opportunity to allow them to tell their story in ways that are different than traditional talk therapy."

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