The large monitor mounted on the wall of a conference room in the Musson Military Veterans Lounge looks like any other flat-screen TV. But it is going to offer much more than images — it is a direct video link for veterans at UA to access health care services without leaving campus.
This telehealth program, which begins in the fall, is being made possible through a partnership with The University of Akron and the Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center. UA is believed to be the VA's first college site in the country for a telehealth program.
Seated here with the video conferencing equipment installed in the Musson Military Veterans Lounge are speech-launguage pathology graduate students Emily Lowe, left, and Jennifer Skaggs, right. With them is Christian Turner, president of the Military Veterans Association. On the screen are personnel at the Cleveland Veterans Affairs Medical Center. From left is Amy Bryson, speech-language pathology therapist; Darlene Moenter-Rogriguez, Ph.D. chief of audiology, speech-language pathology; and Katie Murfey, speech language pathologist.
The initiative is part of the University's growing range of services for returning military veterans pursuing degrees here. In addition to the enrollment and academic support provided by the Military Services Center and Adult Focus to UA's approximately 1,400 student-veterans, there is the lounge. It opened in InfoCision Stadium in 2011, thanks to $220,000 in donations from the community, including the R.C. Musson and Katharine M. Musson Charitable Foundation.
"With this partnership, we will provide VA patients enrolled at The University of Akron with increased access to high quality health care that could previously only be received by traveling to one of our 13 outpatient clinics or our Wade Park Medical Center here in Cleveland," says David Chmielewski, the Cleveland telehealth facility lead.
"There are a variety of health services we can offer, but we're going to begin with speech-language pathology because there's a wonderful program in place on campus and we know we have the right people on both ends to support it," adds Chmielewski, who has earned two degrees at UA, including an MBA in Management – Health Services Administration in 2009.
In fact, it is through the School of Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology that telehealth is already in use on campus. In the school's Audiology and Speech Center in the Polsky Building, students observe and provide diagnostic and treatment services to children and adults with language, speech and hearing conditions. Most of the appointments are handled on-site, but others are delivered via video conferencing.
Jennifer Skaggs and Emily Lowe, both graduate students in speech-language pathology who will have internships with the VA this year, expect that some of their clients will be student-veterans at UA and they will work with them via the video link. They are the first of many students in UA's new College of Health Professions who will gain telehealth experience as the program expands to meet veterans' various health needs.
The telehealth appointments Skaggs and Lowe will conduct with UA veterans could be handled one of two ways. They might work directly with a client in the Musson conference room while a supervisor at the VA observes the session via the video link, or they might be at the VA providing the services with a supervisor seated next to them.
When the program expands, a doctor or other medical professional at the VA will meet with a client via the video link at UA while a nursing student could provide clinical assistance.
Dr.Charles Carlin, an assistant professor of speech-language pathology and audiology, and Christian Turner, president of UA's Military Veterans Association, with the telehealth equipment.
"There are many advantages to telehealth," says Skaggs, who has worked with clients via video conferencing at the Audiology and Speech Center. "If people have access to the Internet, they can be seen for an appointment when they're on vacation, home with a sick child or if they don't have access to transportation."
In addition to easy access, telehealth offers anonymity that is not always possible in a clinic setting, notes Lowe. "Technology is so prominent in our daily lives — why not administer health services that way when you can? It is user friendly and takes away any stigma."
After graduating in Spring 2013, both hope to work in the area of rehabilitative therapy. Skaggs, who will intern in the spring, hopes to stay in the VA system and work with individuals with traumatic brain injuries. Lowe, who will be at the VA this fall, is looking forward to the experience she will gain.
"It's such a fast-pace medical environment — I'll see so many people with so many different types of disabilities," notes Lowe. "I want to work with people who have cognitive dysfunctions — people who were, quote, unquote normal before their accident or injury. My desire is to help them get back to where they were."
Gaining telehealth experience is important training for UA's graduates in the health professions to have, says Charles Carlin, an assistant professor of speech-language pathology and audiology who provides clinical supervision to the students.
"Telehealth is not new, but it is still very unique, and to have that kind of experience on your resume will open doors for our graduates, whether they are applying for positions or they are opening a private practice and can make that service available to their patients," notes Carlin, who is a member of UA's Telehealth Implementation Task Force.
As veteran enrollment continues to increase at UA, the telehealth program is expected to expand into such specialties as counseling, pain management, endocrinology and physical therapy, and could serve those with traumatic brain injuries and spinal cord injuries.
Carlin also hopes that when the telehealth equipment is not in use for medical appointments, the VA will stream the study skills sessions it already offers to veterans via the video link.
"With traumatic brain injuries, for example, there can be cognitive issues — difficulty maintaining attention, being organized, taking notes, studying for a test, problem solving, even social skills," explains Carlin. "With our academic setting, it's a perfect fit."
To Steve Motika, the telehealth program looks to be a win-win — helping the VA to better reach veterans who need services, and helping the veterans themselves, who are often juggling their studies with family time and jobs.
"The telehealth program will allow our student-veterans to schedule appointments around their classes by eliminating travel time to Cleveland's Wade Park facility for many services," says Motika, assistant dean of student success for Summit and University Colleges. A veteran himself, he serves as the faculty adviser to the Military Veterans Association on campus, co-chairs the campus-wide Veterans Steering Committee and chairs the Telehealth Implementation Task Force. "The telehealth program will save our student-veterans time and resources by allowing them to receive VA medical services from a location on campus that is both convenient and comfortable for them."
Students, faculty and staff who are military veterans can verify their eligibility for VA medical benefits or enroll by contacting the Military Services Center at ext. 7838 or firstname.lastname@example.org.