Health Check via Mobile Videoconferencing

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Dr. Mishkind and Dr. Luxton with the National Center for Telehealth & Technology test the use of smartphones for video conferencing. (Photo by National Center for Telehealth & Technology.)

In 2007 and 2008 troops deployed to the Iraq “Surge” began returning home from deployments lasting as long as 15 months. Several staff members at the National Center for Telehealth and Technology (T2) were part of those extended tours and like many others wanted to spend their first days at home with their families, and most of all, out of uniform. Also like most others, they groaned at the announcement of another mandatory briefing or medical appointment, especially ones that either delayed a return home or were scheduled at times that interrupted the readjustment to home life.

Recent advancements in mobile technology offer the potential to conduct some of these mandatory briefings and appointments on a smart phone. In January of this year, DOD Live noted the release of a new version of Skype that enabled two-way videochat on mobile devices. Apple’s newest iPhone features Facetime, an app capable of providing mobile videoconferencing between Apple’s mobile devices and, recently, their computers. T2’s David Luxton recently provided a great overview of our work in mobile applications, including research into Service Member’s impressions of mobile videoconferencing for mental health care.

T2 staff experiences overseas, as well as all of these announcements, made us wonder: Could we successfully place video calls to Service Members across the globe to assist with scheduling these briefings and appointments. And if we could utilize the technology, how would Service Members perceive this utilization?  We began to investigate these questions by connecting with a Service Member located in Iraqi Kurdistan from our organizational headquarters on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, located in Tacoma, Washington.

We arranged a time in February to call using an Apple device running the newest version of Skype. We all were surprised that the call not only connected over such a great distance, but also remained stable for over 30 minutes. There was little of the usual interruption and lag familiar to troops overseas during the Surge. The Service Member gave the quality of the call an overall “fair” rating, but said that he definitely saw potential use in mental health care.

After establishing the feasibility of this “long distance” call, we scheduled further calls with other Service Members overseas to informally replicate and expand the information gathered. One session was conducted with a colleague in American Samoa, again utilizing Skype with an Apple device. This colleague also felt the quality of the call was fair, but believed there was potential future use for mental health care.

Additional similar calls were conducted with a Service Member and his spouse currently stationed in South Korea. One, a local mental health provider, said “the mobility of this service would offer the client an opportunity to access the services of [a] counselor without needing to be at a computer.” The Service Member shared our initial impression, saying that mobile videoconferencing could be beneficial in the days that immediately follow redeployment, when most Service Members would rather spend time with family than attend mental health appointments.

What’s next? The Army appears poised to equip many of its troops with smart phones. T2’s evaluations of mobile videoconferencing support this effort by providing feedback from Service Members on how they might use and appreciate such a capability. Unfortunately, neither Skype nor Facetime are supported on DOD computers at this time. This has limited our investigation to feasibility testing only. Despite hurdles like these, we are continuing to forge ahead with mobile solutions for our Service Members. You can learn more about our efforts here:


Article Written by:

Bradley Smith is a project manager in the Clinical Telehealth division of the National Center for Telehealth and Technology (T2) and a Captain in the Washington Army National Guard. He deployed to Baghdad as part of the Surge during Operation Iraqi Freedom 2006-2007.

Edited for publication by Carla Voorhees

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