Health care for veterans goes high tech

Reprinted with permssion from the Washington Post. Story by Amrita Jayakumar.

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.

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