The U.S. military is saving lives at rates never before seen in combat and uses incredibly sophisticated diagnostic and treatment procedures in the forward areas of combat. Amazingly, transporting the information that results is sometimes relegated to strapping paper records and CDs to the soldier’s body with duct tape to assure that the information is available at the next stop. The CDs may contain digital copies of medical scans: X-rays, CT scans and the like. That way, when the warrior is taken to the next level of care, doctors will have those images on hand.
This Veterans Day, as we acknowledge the sacrifice of those who defend our freedom, we should also be thankful that as a nation, we give our warriors and veterans the best health care possible. We have also made significant strides to improve how information flows with our wounded heroes and will continue to fill the gaps that remain because those that serve us all deserve the finest care and care coordination possible.
Since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, nearly 50,000 U.S. service members have been wounded in action in Afghanistan and Iraq. The course of their recovery in heavily influenced by what happens on the battlefield, and it is here that we encounter one of our biggest technical hurdles. When a warrior is wounded, we have the ability to provide top-notch field treatment, including capturing medical images. This ability far surpasses anything we were able to do a generation ago, and yet it still isn’t enough.
What we can’t do is consistently transmit images digitally from the battlefield to a military hospital in Europe or the United States. Medical images contain massive amounts of data, and most hospital systems, military or otherwise, simply aren’t equipped to transmit, receive and store that data - even if we could send it from the battlefield. The solution? Duct tape.
Yet this is really no different than what occurs daily in the private-sector health care system. Instead of the radiologist transmitting the image from his work station to a consultant, patients are handed hard copies or CDs of their medical images - and for the same reason. The ability to digitally transmit and store images is one of the most challenging problems facing health care at the moment.
But this problem is what the military, in conjunction with the private sector, is working to solve. One day the scan taken on the battlefield will be consistently available to the hospital where doctors will know the exact nature of the warrior’s injuries before they arrive.
Another area where our technological capacity is driving to meet the needs of our heroes concerns mental health care. Last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) treated 1.2 million veterans for mental health disorders, more than 400,000 of whom have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The sheer volume of cases has taxed VA capacity, as a recent report concludes.
To help meet the demand, the VA has turned to solutions in information technology. In 2003, the VA launched an online patient portal, MyHealtheVet, that allows veterans to track their own health care needs from home: From scheduling appointments to communicating with doctors and taking self-evaluations to monitoring their medication intake.
Recently, the VA has expanded MyHealtheVet to include mental health treatment to cover the growing number of veterans suffering from mental disorders like PTSD. Although still in the development phase, this enhancement will allow veterans to monitor the treatment of their condition and support them in their recovery. Veterans will have the ability to set life goals, monitor their own symptoms, and track how they are taking their medications.
While this new online tool alone won’t solve the problem, it shows how far we’ve come since the days when conditions like PTSD were virtually unknown and, worse, untreated. What’s more, the private sector is experimenting with many of the features already enjoyed by today’s veterans. But adoption of these new technologies is anything but widespread, and much needs to happen before our health care system is as advanced as our technology allows.
Veterans Day is a time not only to remember the sacrifice of our service members but also to thank the doctors, nurses and technicians who do so much on their behalf. They will never waver in providing the best possible care for our veterans, and neither should we.
Jim Traficant is president of Harris Healthcare. Dr. Bart Harmon is chief medical officer for Harris Healthcare and former chief medical information officer for the Military Health System of the U.S. Department of Defense.