Veteran utilizing the new Telehealth Pulmonary Rehabilitation Pilot Program. (VA Courtesy photo)
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HOUSTON — The Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center recently launched a new Telehealth Pulmonary Rehabilitation Pilot Program to more effectively treat Veterans who have Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and are struggling to breathe.

“Before treatment for my COPD, I couldn’t walk to the mailbox. I couldn’t get enough air,” said Robert Wesley, a Vietnam Veteran enrolled in the pilot. “So to get ready, drive to the VA, and walk the distance to get to the doctor’s office was very hard. It was a no-win situation because treatment affects what I can do and how I can live.”

COPD is a chronic inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow from the lungs. Symptoms include breathing difficulty, cough, mucus (sputum) production and wheezing.

The American Lung Association reports that COPD is the third leading cause of death in the U.S., but as a chronic, progressive disease, most patients will live with the disease for many years. The disease is not curable, yet it is possible to achieve improvement with pulmonary rehabilitation.

In southeast Texas, Veterans coping with COPD are now able to receive treatment without leaving the comfort of their homes. Under the new VA Telehealth Pulmonary Rehabilitation pilot, health care providers use tele-technology to reach Veterans and teach them valuable skills and techniques to manage their symptoms.

This unique program involves intensive, real-time interactive rehabilitation with a pulmonologist, a physical therapist, and a respiratory therapist closely monitoring each Veteran’s progress. Following a patient-specific treatment program, Veterans use small exercise apparatuses such as a resistance band, a pedometer, an ergometer, and an incentive spirometer.

Each 120-minute session is conducted by a respiratory therapist and physical therapist and includes monitored exercise, education, and supportive interaction. In addition, the patient receives an exercise pictorial booklet, an exercise CD, a COPD diary and other education materials to use on their own.

“Our goal is to provide much-needed rehabilitation training and assistance to Veterans with COPD who may be unable or prefer not to leave their homes,” said Amir Sharafkhaneh, M.D., Ph.D. , Staff Pulmonologist at the Houston VA and Professor of Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine.  “During the program, patients learn about things like breathing exercises, the benefits of exercise and physical activity, nutrition, stress and anxiety management, sleep and sleep hygiene, pharmacology, infection and emergency planning. It really is a great way for us to equip our veterans with the information they need to self-manage their health and improve their quality of life.”

In this pilot phase of the project, Sharafkhaneh and the two VA therapists, Mon Bryant, P.T., Ph.D. and Christina Nguyen, R.R.T., seek to demonstrate that telehealth can be used effectively to provide pulmonary rehabilitation and promote life-long self-management. To date, enrolled Veterans are pleased with the results.

“By the third week, I could tell a difference,” said Wesley. “I feel stronger, breathe easier, and have more confidence in my ability. I considered canceling a reunion trip I had planned, but I now have the endurance and confidence to make the trip. I look forward daily to improving myself physically and not allowing COPD to rule my life.”

Veterans with COPD or other chronic lung diseases who are interested in participating in this pilot program, should speak with their primary care doctor for more information.

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