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Travel Burden as a Measure of Healthcare Access and the Impact of Telehealth within the Veterans Health Administration.

Hahn Z, Hotchkiss J, Atwood C, Smith C, Totten A, Boudreau E, Folmer R, Chilakamarri P, Whooley M, Sarmiento K. Travel Burden as a Measure of Healthcare Access and the Impact of Telehealth within the Veterans Health Administration. Journal of general internal medicine. 2023 Jul 1; 38(Suppl 3):805-813.

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BACKGROUND: Travel is a major barrier to healthcare access for Veteran Affairs (VA) patients, and disproportionately affects rural Veterans (approximately one quarter of Veterans). The CHOICE/MISSION acts'' intent is to increase timeliness of care and decrease travel, although not clearly demonstrated. The impact on outcomes remains unclear. Increased community care increases VA costs and increases care fragmentation. Retaining Veterans within the VA is a high priority, and reduction of travel burdens will help achieve this goal. Sleep medicine is presented as a use case to quantify travel related barriers. OBJECTIVE: The Observed and Excess Travel Distances are proposed as two measures of healthcare access, allowing for quantification of healthcare delivery related to travel burden. A telehealth initiative that reduced travel burden is presented. DESIGN: Retrospective, observational, utilizing administrative data. SUBJECTS: VA patients with sleep related care between 2017 and 2021. In-person encounters: Office visits and polysomnograms; telehealth encounters: virtual visits and home sleep apnea tests (HSAT). MAIN MEASURES: Observed distance: distance between Veteran''s home and treating VA facility. Excess distance: difference between where Veteran received care and nearest VA facility offering the service of interest. Avoided distance: distance between Veteran''s home and nearest VA facility offering in-person equivalent of telehealth service. KEY RESULTS: In-person encounters peaked between 2018 and 2019, and have down trended since, while telehealth encounters have increased. During the 5-year period, Veterans traveled an excess 14.1 million miles, while 10.9 million miles of travel were avoided due to telehealth encounters, and 48.4 million miles were avoided due to HSAT devices. CONCLUSIONS: Veterans often experience a substantial travel burden when seeking medical care. Observed and excess travel distances are valuable measures to quantify this major healthcare access barrier. These measures allow for assessment of novel healthcare approaches to improve Veteran healthcare access and identify specific regions that may benefit from additional resources.

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