Despite its reputation for bureaucratic bungling, the VA is actually leading the way in innovative telemedicine solutions.

Like many good things—such as plasma screen TVs and instant replay—telemedicine was originated by NASA.

When they first put astronauts in space, physiological data from the astronauts were telemetered from both their space suits and the spacecraft itself, fostering the guiding principles of what is now modern telemedicine. What’s more, they funded programs to develop telemedicine all through the 60s and 70s.

Today, that nugget of what they created back when JFK was president is about to explode over the next decade. Fraught with rising prices, maxed-out utilization and packed waiting rooms, the healthcare industry is poised to make telemedicine the next killer app that drives cost cutting at the same time it improves patient care.

Driven in part by the lack of healthcare access in rural areas, telemedicine is set to explode over the next few years, with the deployment of telemedicine services increasing in tandem with the continuous development of telecommunication.

And surprisingly, it’s a giant federal agency—not a nimble startup, a giant tech firm or deep-pocketed health system—that’s setting the standard for telemedicine services. According to the VA’s telehealth portal, the agency has already pioneered nearly a dozen other telehealth applications—including telecardiology, teleneurology, telenutrition, teleprimarycare, teleamputation clinics and telerehabilitation, and more are on the drawing board.

VA focused on telemedicine deployment

Unlike many emerging tech trends, the telemedicine expansion is not being led by Google, Verizon or even Apple. The undisputed innovator in telehealth is the Veteran’s Administration, which last October reported some amazing statistics regarding the progress of its national telehealth program:

“The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) announced that its national telehealth programs served more than 690,000 veterans during fiscal year 2014. That total represents approximately 12 percent of the overall veteran population enrolled for VA healthcare, and accounted for more than 2 million telehealth visits. Of that number, approximately 55 percent were veterans living in rural areas with limited access to VA healthcare.”

Further, the VA reported in FY 2014 that:

  • 379,000 veterans participated in store-and-forward telehealth
  • 248,000 veterans received some sort of clinical video care
  • 156,000 veterans received in-home telehealth services
  • 108,000 veterans received mental health care via telehealth
  • 4,000 veterans have clinical video technology installed in their homes
  • 44% of veterans living in rural areas have received some form of telehealth services.

Apps part of VA outreach

Not satisfied with stopping there, the Department of Defense and The National Center for Telehealth & Technology (T2 for short) has partnered up with the VA to deliver some important smartphone apps just reviewed by the Washington Post.

Breathe2Relax, as it is called, is an app that counsels the user through basic breathing exercises designed by yoga experts to help a person remain calm, or to reclaim calmness in the face of anger. It doesn’t seem like a critical app, but for people who suffer from PTSD and other stress-related disorders, it is sometimes the difference between a normal day and a crippling anxiety attack.

The partnership has also crafted a nifty Mood Tracker that has been downloaded 200,000 times already. Up next for T2 and the VA: an app that will use proven treatments to reduce nightmares, such as imagery rehearsal, prolonged exposure and cognitive processing therapies.

What NASA started, the VA is intent on bringing to fruition, and if the healthcare industry is smart, its leaders will follow in the VA’s footsteps.

Anne Zieger is a veteran journalist who’s been covering the U.S. healthcare scene for over 25 years. You can follow Anne on Twitter @ziegerhealth.

The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.