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Since The Pandemic, Wyoming Veteran Uses Telemedicine To Treat PTSD

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The coronavirus pandemic has given a big boost to telemedicine, you know, where you interact with your doctor over some kind of video call. It's been around for a while, but many patients and health care providers have been skeptical about whether this telemedicine can really work. Wyoming Public Radio's Kamila Kudelska introduces us to a veteran who's been forced to use telemedicine to treat his PTSD.

KAMILA KUDELSKA, BYLINE: Ron Loporto served in the National Guard for 39 years, including two overseas assignments. It left him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

RON LOPORTO: There have been times where the trigger was so deep, it brought up a combination of traumas. And I was ready to fight in public places.

KUDELSKA: Seeing a psychologist at the Veterans Administration hospital in Sheridan, Wyo., really helped. But then in March, that hospital stopped doing outpatient appointments because of coronavirus.

LOPORTO: Good morning.

KUDELSKA: So now Loporto sits down on an exercise ball in front of a laptop at his house to log into a telehealth session instead. He was hesitant at first, and so was his psychologist, Robin Lipke.

ROBIN LIPKE: You use a lot of your physical presence in the same room with the person. Should something occur in that setting, you're right there versus in their home.

KUDELSKA: That's just part of the pushback that slowed adoption of telehealth over the years. Insurance companies haven't always wanted to cover telehealth. Regulations sometimes got in the way, and there has been a stigma. But as coronavirus has forced many health care facilities to close their doors to non-COVID patients, telehealth has become a sole option. It's virtual visits or nothing. And Lipke started to notice that her patients began opening up in a different way when she connected to them in their homes.

LIPKE: As we were talking, they might say, oh, you see this photograph back here and might start talking about something that might not have gotten if we were only in the office.

KUDELSKA: Interacting over video calls isn't a one-stop solution for every type of health care. But Alan Morgan, CEO of the nonprofit National Rural Health Association, says telehealth can really make a difference in rural places.

ALAN MORGAN: The real concern is you just can't get specialty care to live and work in a rural community.

KUDELSKA: Small towns have trouble recruiting and keeping specialists like cardiologists because there's not as much demand and they can't offer big-city salaries. That means rural people often have to drive long distances to get care.

MORGAN: We now have the ability for physicians in rural health clinics to meet their patients on their own terms and to remove those transportation barriers that we've long had.

KUDELSKA: Telehealth appointments have increased more than 1,000% at the VA hospital in Sheridan since it stopped face-to-face outpatient visits in March. Veteran Ron Loporto says it's totally working to keep his PTSD under control.

LOPORTO: So I'm really happy where I am now with my medication and my providers, both at the VA and civilian.

KUDELSKA: This spring, the VA relaxed their rules on which doctors do telemedicine visits, and some states have relaxed restrictions, too, now allowing patients to use apps like FaceTime and Zoom for appointments. And hospitals now can bill Medicare and Medicaid for some virtual visits they couldn't get paid for previously. For NPR News, I'm Kamila Kudelska.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOBY TRANTER'S "LOWKEY VIBES")

MARTIN: This story was based on an episode of "The Modern West" podcast. You can hear more about rural telehealth at themodernwest.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOBY TRANTER'S "LOWKEY VIBES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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