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– The Department of Veterans Affairs has made significant strides in telehealth and mHealth adoption over the past few years, in everything from mHealth apps to virtual visits and telehealth stations in remote and retail locations.

Now the VA is gaining praise for a new telehealth service: the country’s first remote chemotherapy clinic.

The program is based in Pennsylvania, and links the James E. Van Zandt VA Medical Center in Altoona with the VA Pittsburgh Medical Center, some 100 miles away. Using telemedicine technology, oncologists at the Pittsburgh hospital have been delivering cancer care and chemotherapy treatment to veterans at the clinic for about a year.

“Patients and caregivers tell me, ‘We love this technology because it saves us so much travel, time, and money,’” Vida Passero, MD, an oncologist and head of the VA Pittsburgh Health System’s Hematology and Oncology Division, said in the news story provided by the VA.

With some 40,000 new cancer cases among veterans being reported each year – and percentages rising as veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq enter the mix – cancer care management is rising to the top of an increasingly more complex list of services offered by the nation’s VA health system. Up until recently, that care was almost exclusively delivered in person.

But with many of the nation’s 2.6 million veterans living in remote locations, dealing with mobility or transportation issues or simply hesitant to travel to the nearest hospital, the nation’s largest health system has been moving to embrace connected health. The number of veterans accessing healthcare through telehealth jumped 17 percent from 2018 to 2019, while virtual visits made through the VA’s Video Connect App jumped 235 percent.

More recently, the VA has begun placing telehealth kiosks in remote VFW and American Legion posts, and is now pushing that platform into select Walmarts. The idea is to expand the care platform out to the veteran, rather than forcing the veteran to travel long distances to seek care.

Passero and her colleagues launched virtual care consults in 2011, but the technology was raw and interest in the program was minimal. Now, armed with the latest in audio-video technology, they’re ready to see patients.

Now the Altoona clinic coordinates care online with Pittsburgh, handling testing, lab work and radiology services and then handing the patient off to Passero and her team for virtual visits.

Passero says the program, which she calls “the next frontier” in cancer care, has drawn the attention of other care providers and VA clinics, and she expects to push that model of care to other locations.

“We were able to get this project, which was thought to be impossible, off the ground,” she said. “Since then, people in the private sector have been asking, ‘How did you do this?’ It just shows how VA can be innovative.”

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