When Barbara Van Dahlen was brainstorming ways to address veterans’ mental-health needs 10 years ago, she was inspired by Craigslist and the way the site made it easy for buyers to find sellers.
“I thought — I should be able to use technology to connect mental-health professionals all over the country with veterans and their families,” said Van Dahlen, a licensed clinical psychologist and president of nonprofit group Give an Hour. The organization gives troops and their families access to free mental-health services through video sessions with a network of volunteers.
Give an Hour was founded in 2005 — when few had heard of “telehealth” and the iPhone did not exist yet.
Fast forward to 2015: The charity now teams up regularly with technology firms to help veterans. It has worked with the likes of Google to reach more veterans through a series of video chats. It paired with Booz Allen Hamilton to analyze program data to better deliver services. And it is exploring a partnership with Doctor on Demand, an app that gives users 15-minute appointments with doctors, virtually.
Technology is critical in overcoming the stigma around mental health issues, said Van Dahlen, who launched a national campaign to raise awareness about the topic in Washington last week.
“Technology allows people from the privacy of their own computer screen to say, ‘I don’t know if I’m depressed, but I’d like to find out more,’ ” she said.
In 2013, Give an Hour partnered with Google’s veteran network group on an experiment called “Google Helpouts” that lets ordinary people connect with subject-matter experts using the video-chat platform Google Hangouts. Experts were available on a variety of topics from health to cooking to home repair, some for free and others for a fee.
The partnership brought Give an Hour’s model to a vast network of Google users, Van Dahlen said, but Google said in a blog post that it would end Helpouts on April 20, because it “hasn’t grown at the pace we had expected.”
Give an Hour’s technology initiatives come as the Department of Veterans Affairs ramps up its own efforts to integrate technology in its health-care system.
For example, VA’s Connected Health program seeks to give veterans better access to medical care through smartphones, tablets and other mobile technology.
VA distributed over 10,000 tablets to clinicians across the country last year and launched a mobile app store with more than a dozen apps to provide veterans with access to health services.
The apps have been downloaded by more than 300,000 users since their release, according to VA officials. Booz Allen is providing the IT support for Connected Health.
The new technology is part of VA’s efforts to overhaul itself following revelations that as many as 40 veterans died while waiting for care at its hospitals due to widespread inefficiencies in its scheduling system and a culture of covering up mistakes.
Officials acknowledge that change is an uphill battle.
“The reality of being the largest integrated health-care system in the country means that making progress is a huge undertaking,” said Julia Hoffman, VA’s national director of mobile health.
That’s why VA’s approach to mobile technology is more cautious. Many of the apps are not integrated with the agency’s database of health records, which rely on older IT infrastructure. Instead, they are meant to act as a first resource for veterans seeking general advice.
Apps focused on mental health have received positive feedback in their test run, Hoffman said, because they remove the stigma of seeking help. For example, the share of veterans who were willing to seek a referral to a mental-health counselor after using the apps has increased, she said. Nearly half of all VA patients undergoing prolonged exposure therapy, a method to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, use the app called PE Coach, she said.
VA plans to release three apps on a national scale this year — Launchpad, Summary of Care and the Mobile Blue Button — a project being run by Falls Church, Va.-based Northrop Grumman to provide different levels of access to health records, said Neil Evans, co-director of the Office of Connected Health.
A fourth one under development, called MyVAHealth, will enable veterans to upload medical data directly to their health-care providers. A test version of MyVAHealth is planned for release this year, he said.