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Does Health IT Help Veteran Mental Health Self-Management?

Although health IT may be useful for veterans managing multiple chronic conditions, experts warn against over-relying on the tools for self-management.

By Sara Heath

- Although health IT could be helpful for veteran self-management of mental health and chronic conditions, providers need to ensure they do not over-rely on these technologies.

health-IT-self-management

That’s the finding of a recent study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

According to researchers, 40 percent of veterans suffer from a mental healthcare condition, the most common of which being post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Alongside managing PTSD, 20 percent of male veterans and 32 percent of female veterans manage at least 10 chronic medical conditions.

In the past, health technology has helped serve patient needs and support self-management of many healthcare symptoms, the researchers explained. However, the effectiveness of patient-facing technology depends on several external factors.

“The potential for electronic health (eHealth) resources to better promote wellness in veterans with PTSD and comorbid chronic medical conditions depends on understanding patients’ health needs and preferences related to technology,” Whealin et al. explained.

READ MORE: Patient mHealth App Use Marks Motivation for Healthy Behaviors

“Given the multiple challenges that veterans with PTSD and comorbid CMCs face, it is vital to understand the ways in which the needs of these veterans interface with the types of eHealth resources available, as well as the health-related tasks veterans prefer and desire.”

The research team contacted veterans managing both PTSD and one other chronic condition using the Department of Veterans Affairs patient portal. Using 119 responses to a patient survey and two focus groups, the researchers determined what technologies veterans use, how they use it, and potential future guidance.

Overall, 44 percent of respondents use health technology for self-management at least once per month, and 21 percent use it less than once per month. Seventy-nine percent use health devices to search for information, 71 percent to communicate with their providers, and 65 percent to track their medications.

This data, paired with qualitative assessments during focus groups, informed five patient engagement technology themes: social support, condition management, access to and communication with providers, information access, and care coordination.

According to the researchers, more healthcare professionals can develop and advocate for technologies that enable social support. When veterans interact with others experiencing similar symptoms, they are better able to manage their own.

READ MORE: Personal Patient Portal Messages Can Support Self-Management

Additionally, the researchers said veterans need better access to apps that will help them in public settings.

“Mobile phones were found to be an important source of grounding and security that enabled veterans to better function in public settings,” the researchers explained.

“In addition to knowing that they could use their phone to access a support person, veterans used specific eHealth tools, such as the VA ‘PTSD Coach’ mobile app, to cope with their difficult symptoms.”

However, very few participants actually had access to these kinds of apps, highlighting a need for healthcare professionals to educate patients on their availability.

Although the researchers found that health technology may have a positive effect on veteran patient self-management, they did caution drawing a distinct line. One of the typical symptoms of PTSD is avoidance, they explained, and over-utilization of technology could push veterans to further withdraw from their healthcare.

READ MORE: Patient Education Improves Diabetes Self-Management Outcomes

The researchers saw this specifically when veterans expressed interest in telemedicine.

“It is important to caution that the exclusive use of home-based appointments may not be in the best interest of some veterans with PTSD,” Whealin et al. wrote. “Care must be taken to ensure that virtual services do not prevent veterans from actively engaging in healthy life events.”

The study participants reflected these sentiments, as well.

“Veterans in this study recognized that excessive use of technology, including social media such as Facebook, can promote avoidance of face-to-face socialization among veterans with PTSD,” the researchers reported. “Clinical intervention may be necessary to encourage veterans with PTSD and comorbid CMCs to approach technology in a manner conducive to recovery.”

Ultimately, healthcare professionals should ensure that technology serves as a self-management aid. By understanding the unique needs veteran and mental health patients present, industry stakeholders can shape technology to effectively improve self-care.

Additionally, the researchers suggest further research to determine the appropriate frequency with which veterans use health IT, ensuring that it is not a hindrance to their mental and physical health care.

“Study findings suggest opportunities to augment the potential power of eHealth as an adjunct to care, particularly with regard to preventive care,” Whealin et al. concluded. “The themes that emerged from this investigation help characterize approaches the VA and eHealth technology developers can take to refine existing resources and develop new tools to better serve veterans with PTSD and CMCs.”

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