Secretary's Center for Strategic Partnerships (SCSP)
How Eureka, Montana adopted a first-of-its-kind telehealth pod for Veterans
March 9, 2020
Eureka, Montana, doesn’t have a single stoplight. But in the back room of its local Veterans of Foreign Wars post and canteen, it has something arguably better: an incredibly futuristic telehealth pod, glowing like a time machine dropped into the most unlikely place in history.
If it appears anachronistic, that’s exactly the point. Eureka was an attractive location for Project ATLAS, a collaboration among Philips, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the VFW and a slew of additional mission-oriented partners, precisely because of its remoteness. This coalition ensured that Montana, colloquially called the last best place, became the first best place for a community telehealth pod in service of local Veterans, which Montana has more of per capita than any other state.
But how do you take a local VFW post, just 7 miles from the Canadian border in a state where cattle outnumber people 8 to 1, and implement world-class technology designed to meet the specific needs of aging Veterans? When Project ATLAS was officially unveiled on Oct. 16 in Eureka, so was the story of how it came to be.
“This was an idea that was born in Washington; it was built in Eureka, and it was really powered by Philips and the business community, in partnership with the VA,” said Deborah Lafer Scher, executive adviser to the secretary of Veterans Affairs, and the leader of the VA’s Center for Strategic Partnerships.
With 25% of Veterans living in rural communities, including 33% of the Veterans served by the VA, “ATLAS became a foundational partnership for the secretary on how to reach Veterans everywhere,” she said.
Planting the seed
In October 2018, Scher and the VA convened a meeting of industry that would spark Project ATLAS and recruit partners like Philips to commit to the secretary’s mission to change Veterans’ lives through telehealth.
“ATLAS stands for Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations,” explained Lesly Roose, the VA’s ATLAS program manager, and it was conceived in concept, but not form, at this event.
Philips was quick to commit, according to Scher.
“As we were making this announcement, Philips said, ‘We can help you by donating telehealth equipment in partnership with the VFW and the American Legion posts, so that Veterans can have health care right in their community,’” she said. “Well, this incredible donation, which was very generous, became a mission, became a movement.”
Nathan Naylor, Philips’ director of business development for Veterans health, recalled the exact moment he heard about Project ATLAS.
“I waited for the coffee break and ran outside and called everyone I knew at Philips and said that we had to do something with this, and my colleagues agreed,” Naylor said. “Over the past 12 months, it’s been probably one of the highlights of my professional career being able to leverage some of the most innovative people I know in the world on behalf of Veterans like I have in my family.”
Eureka, Montana, emerged early on as a contender for ATLAS.
“We made a list of communities where we’d have this high concentration of Veterans who are very far from the VA care they would prefer to receive,” Scher explained, adding that other factors like broadband access were also taken into consideration. “When you put all those criteria together, Eureka came out at the top, quickly followed by some other locations that will be rolling out over the next year.”
None of these factors matter, of course, if Veterans in a community aren’t open to telehealth. So the VA approached Rick and Mel, commander and quartermaster of VFW Post 6786 in Eureka, to find out.
“It sounded great to us,” Rick said. “Both of us are retired Army (and have) seen many Veterans that have an issue getting to appointments, getting around. We thought it was an ideal solution to our problem up here.”
As a Veteran, Rick has also experienced issues in Eureka firsthand, braving harsh weather and great distances to receive care.
“Once a year, I have to drive the five hours one way to the nearest VA hospital in Helena, Montana,” he said. “It’s a 10-minute appointment. By the time you do the round trip, it’s 10 hours. I’m still young enough to do it, but many of my fellow comrades are not.”
Roose, the ATLAS program manager, also recognized the potential of telehealth to bridge the digital divide by bringing health care to rural Veterans.
“I live in a rural area, and I’m the daughter of a Vietnam Veteran and a granddaughter of a World War II Veteran,” she said. “I recognize the limitations and the barriers that exist when you choose to live in a more rural location.”
Designing for success
Sean Hughes, head of Philips Design in North America, wanted to hear from the Veterans of Eureka and design a solution specifically for their needs. Their openness to the proposal was remarkable.
“Everybody said, ‘We understand the concept, and we want it in our community,’” he said. “They see the benefits, and the fact that you can broadcast care in this way, it’s just going to make people’s lives better.”
But why a pod?
“Sometimes people create something that you don’t even know you need,” Scher said. “The VA did not know they needed a pod. Veterans didn’t know they needed a pod. I’m not sure Philips even knew they were going to create a pod.”
It was the input of Eureka Veterans, taken into account by the VA and the Philips design team, that ultimately led to the pod solution.
“We went through a process that we call co-creation,” Hughes explained. “We actually met with the community, and we walked them through the scenario of: ‘How would we deliver telehealth in your VFW post?’”
Together with Eureka locals, the VA and the VFW, Philips used role-play, mock-ups and innovative design to overcome challenges that included accessibility, privacy and comfort.
“Overall, the space has been designed to create comfort,” Hughes said.
In addition to ambient lighting, ergonomic chairs, and enough space for a caregiver and a service animal, “the camera in the room is as close to your eye level as possible,” Naylor said. “It creates that intimacy that you need with the clinician.”
Kevin Jamison, the assistant director for corporate relations at the VFW, has been instrumental in assisting Philips and Project ATLAS. A Veteran himself, Jamison personally uses telehealth and understands its potential.
“(The pod) may not meet the needs of somebody in California or New Mexico, but this is meeting the needs for the Veterans here in Eureka, and that’s the most important thing,” he said. “If we save just one life by all the effort we’re doing, then it’s worth it.”
A brighter future
The pod sitting in the back room of VFW Post 6786 represents a beacon of hope for Veterans and a harbinger of more personalized and accessible health care in the future for all Americans. And though it is just the beginning, seeing the fully operational prototype has evoked an emotional response from many of the individuals involved.
“Here in Eureka, just looking at that pod, (I am) so proud to see all of that hard work and dedication that we put into it just come to life,” Roose said.
Almost everyone packed into that VFW back room for the Project ATLAS ribbon-cutting marveled about the incredible teamwork and speed that made it possible, all fueled by collective care for a vital cause.
“Care for the Veterans was always priority one this whole time,” Jamison said. “If you would have told me before I started working on this project a year ago, if you would have told me that the government, private corporations and nonprofits could work together to make something happen in less than six months, I would have been shocked.”
Project ATLAS will continue scaling by implementing local telehealth solutions in American Legion and VFW posts across the country.
This accomplishment marks the beginning of a new movement in health care: first for America’s Veterans and next for the civilian sector whose freedom they defended.
“This model of extending telehealth into local communities, eliminating the tyranny of distance that often separates a clinician and a patient,” Naylor said, “if it’s good enough for Veterans, it can be good enough for everybody.”
Philips is a proud partner of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Find out more about Project ATLAS at usa.philips.com.
This article first appeared on USA Today by Jennifer Markert, for Philips.