Smart technology isn’t just for entertainment. It also can be a powerful tool for improving Veterans’ health. With the help of VA health care providers, more Veterans are using consumer devices, such as Apple Watches, to monitor their own health.
Kimberly Braswell, a nurse practitioner in the cardiology unit at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, Florida, has seen smart technology as an opportunity to connect with patients and improve their care plans.
Braswell helps treat atrial fibrillation (AFib), an irregular and often rapid heart rate that can increase a person’s risk of stroke, heart failure and other heart-related complications.
Braswell recalled the excitement of Veterans when they learned of the devices’ ability to measure and record health data. This data includes heart rate and physical activity level. She also noticed a larger trend in patient behavior too.
“Veterans using the watch want to be engaged in their health care. As a health care provider, that’s the hardest part for us to accomplish with patients. I wanted to tap into this technology and make it work for us at VA.”
Testing the timepieces
Today’s Apple watches can perform an electrocardiogram (EKG). This is a noninvasive test that measures the electrical signals of the heart to detect abnormalities in heart rhythm.
In summer 2019, Braswell identified four Veterans to test the watches managing the patients’ AFib. When the watch detected a Veteran was having heart rhythm irregularities, Braswell coached them on how to manage their symptoms and when to seek additional treatment.
In 2020, the pilot program expanded with a new name: VETERANS (Veteran Engagement Through Electronic Resources and Notifications Study). The pilot will include 25 Veterans who recently underwent a procedure to suppress AFib.
The post-operative patients use their VA-issued watches to detect if there’s a recurrence of AFib. They will also meet on a monthly basis with their care teams through VA Video Connect, an app that allows Veterans to meet with their providers over a secure video connection. They will review the data gathered from their watches and discuss any symptoms they’re having.
“One of the greatest powers of mobile technology is that it empowers patients to feel engaged and in control of their health care,” Braswell said.
The pilot is also incorporating other telehealth modalities. Veterans are taught how to send their EKG results to their provider through secure messaging on My HealtheVet. Once received, the provider adds the information to the Veterans’ medical records. In addition, Veterans are receiving automated text notifications through the Annie App for Veterans.
“We’re also incorporating the Annie app to promote a healthier lifestyle and reduce risk factors for AFib,” said Braswell. “Automated reminders about activity, sleep, nutrition, blood pressure — these are all things we use the Annie app for to engage the Veterans in their health care so they can see the correlation in how these things impact their overall health.”
Veterans connecting with other Veterans
An unforeseen, but equally important, success of the pilot is the connections Veterans are making with other Veterans. Robert Kreisel is one of the four original patients in the pilot. He now trains other Veteran participants to use their watch to record their health data.
Kreisel is pictured at the top of this story, on the far right, helping fellow Veterans set up their watches.
Braswell recalls Kreisel meeting fellow Navy Veteran Walter Zastrow. “They both immediately bonded over their shared service. They were able to communicate on the same level while being respectful and mindful of each other. That has really been one of the most rewarding parts for me — to watch Veterans engage with other Veterans.”
Braswell continued, “The power of this little device is pretty impressive and I think we’re just starting to tap into it. The more data providers have access to, the better they can understand their patients’ needs and develop a tailored plan to fit their lifestyle.”
To learn more about VA’s telehealth technologies, visit the Office of Connected Care’s website.
Treva Lutes is communications director for the Office of Connected Care.