Until a recent act of kindness, Veteran Charles Murray, 66, would lug his heavy, 12-year-old laptop three miles on his bike to Igo Library in San Antonio. He endured the weight of the eight-pound laptop in his backpack, pedaling in the Texas summer heat because he couldn’t afford bus fare.
Once he arrived at the library, which was closed due to the pandemic, he would sit on the outdoor patio and use its Wi-Fi to conduct his VA telehealth appointments. Murray did not have broadband to participate in video visits from his home.
“The video visits add a different dynamic than over-the-phone appointments,” Murray said. “It’s almost like you are right there with the person.”
As the days became colder, the library patio became a less appealing option. Thanks to VA, Murray found a way to connect with his VA care team by video from the comfort of his home. His home was also secured through a VA program since he previously experienced homelessness.
Digital Divide consult helps qualified Veterans get loaned equipment
Murray isn’t alone in not having reliable internet access. According to the Federal Communications Commission, 15% of Veteran households do not have a way to connect to the internet at home. That’s why VA Telehealth Services has developed the Digital Divide Consult and the connected device program. The programs help qualifying Veterans receive VA-loaned equipment.
Murray and his VA social worker Heidi Morris meet in San Antonio to exchange Thanksgiving Day wishes.
Murray’s clinical psychologist, Dr. Amanda Wetegrove-Romine, ordered a Digital Divide Consult for Murray. The consult determined his eligibility for programs to help him get the internet service needed for VA telehealth. Heidi Morris, Murray’s homeless program social worker, then completed an assessment for a VA internet-connected device.
In collaboration with Apple – and facilitated by the Secretary’s Center for Strategic Partnerships – VA loaned Murray an iPad with cellular data service, as well as start-up instructions. Since then, Murray has connected with his care team through VA Video Connect from his home.
Patients more engaged using computer camera
Wetegrove-Romine said that providing Murray and other Veterans with these tools was a game changer. She added that Veterans are more engaged when they’re in front of a camera. And they reveal more through nonverbal cues – such as facial reactions to treatment recommendations – than they do over the phone.
“You need the internet right now, especially during the pandemic, to take part in health care, employment and education,” said Dr. Kevin Galpin, executive director of VA Telehealth Services. “It’s important that every Veteran has the ability to stay connected.”
VA social workers have seen an increase in Veteran engagement in VA programs due to increased access to VA-loaned devices and connectivity resources, said Jennifer Koget, a licensed clinical social worker and acting national director of VA’s national social work program office.
“Don’t know where I’d be without VA”
“Social workers can now reach Veterans who were lacking technology and connectivity resources and focus on resolving social determinants of health challenges, resulting in improved Veteran wellness,” Koget said.
“Veterans who have received VA-loaned connected devices have been thankful for and respectful of the technology,” said Wetegrove-Romine.
“They’re something to look forward to,” Murray said of his virtual visits, using his iPad. “They activate my mind to use brainpower. I don’t know where I’d be without the help of VA.”
Murray still enjoys biking through San Antonio on warmer days and researching on his iPad. He plans to learn how to check out e-books on wellness, spirituality and African American history from the library next.
For more on the Digital Divide Consult and related programs, check out this fact sheet.
Treva Lutes is the communications lead for the Office of Connected Care.