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Military telepain clinics in D.C. area help patients manage pain

Dr. Christopher Spevak, director of the opioid safety program for the National Capital Region in and around Washington, D.C., uses the telehealth equipment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland. (DoD photo by Kalila Fleming) Dr. Christopher Spevak, director of the opioid safety program for the National Capital Region in and around Washington, D.C., uses the telehealth equipment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland. (DoD photo by Kalila Fleming)

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Some military treatment facilities in the Washington, D.C., area offer virtual appointments for patients being treated for chronic pain. Providers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, can now video conference with patients who are in hospitals and clinics at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia; Fort Belvoir, Virginia; Joint Base Andrews, Maryland; and the Pentagon.

Dr. Christopher Spevak, director of the opioid safety program for the National Capital Region in and around Washington, D.C., said telehealth is especially important for patients who are using opioids to manage chronic pain because it gives them easier access to doctors who specialize in pain management and can offer alternative modalities.

“Virtual health care has really a unique opportunity to help with pain care and decreasing our opioid burden, not only in the military but in civilian sectors,” said Spevak. Sometimes, remote hospitals and clinics don’t have the capacity Walter Reed has to offer substitutes for opioids. “That’s the unique advantage of this program.”

Spevak explained this telehealth option is currently offered to those clinics in the D.C. area because providers must also be credentialed in the facilities where the patient is sitting for video consultation, in addition to the hospital where the doctor is located. All military hospitals and clinics provide the highest level of security for patient information in these video discussions.

“This isn’t a visit that occurs over your cellphone or Skype or any other commercial type of service,” said Spevak. “It’s a military-grade standard with a secure connection, that is compliant with all federal and state privacy regulations.”

Retired Army Lt. Col. Bruce Moler has firsthand experience using this telepain option. The former infantryman has a chronic pain condition for a back problem that started 20 years ago, just a couple of years before his retirement in 1999. At first it was an issue with his back that cropped up after “overdoing it.” But the problem got progressively worse as he aged, and he had to increase pain meds and eventually give up things he loved, such as running and refereeing lacrosse matches. Moler lives near Quantico and has been going there for telemedicine appointments for almost two years, just after the service began at the base.

“It’s been great,” said Moler. “I have no problem getting an appointment. It’s been a blessing.”

Moler praised the people at Quantico who help set up the appointments on his end, and Spevak and physician assistant Jasmine Anthony, who see Moler through a computer screen at their offices at Walter Reed.

“They’ve been excellent. I’m upright. I’m walking. They’ve done very well,” said the 63-year-old Moler, adding that Anthony is doing everything possible to keep him off the operating table for his deteriorating back condition. “The first time I talked with Dr. Spevak and Anthony, they told me their job was to keep me away from the surgeon’s knife as long as possible. And that’s what they have done.”

Moler admitted it took a little getting used to having his care provider “seeing” him through a video screen, although there are technicians in person at the Quantico clinic who could take care of anything that required direct contact. He recommends the service to others in the D.C. area, if it’s available in their location.

“It works just as well as having the doctor right there in the room with you,” said Moler. “I’m a happy customer.”

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