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Newt Gingrich: While Obama Ignores Vets, Smartphones Gear Up to Replace Bureaucrats

Image: Newt Gingrich: While Obama Ignores Vets, Smartphones Gear Up to Replace Bureaucrats
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By    |   Monday, 02 February 2015 08:10 AM

In his sixth State of the Union address, President Barack Obama spent a lot of time declaring imaginary victories over challenges foreign and domestic. To hear him tell it, radical Islamists are in retreat around the globe and the American economy is booming.

One of the president’s most fantastic declarations was of having repaired a Veterans Affairs bureaucracy so dysfunctional that, just six months ago, the secretary was forced to resign. In the two sentences (out of more than 6,700 words) that President Obama devoted to the VA, he insisted that "we’ve made strides toward ensuring that every veteran has access to the highest quality of care."

If only that were true.

Just a handful people have been fired for the widespread corruption, which left veterans languishing on secret wait lists for months or even years, some of them dying for lack of care.

The failed VA bureaucracy President Obama claims to have fixed remains entirely intact. Its outdated systems are virtually unchanged.

And the cascade of horror stories has continued. We have collected 192 separate news stories at Gingrich Productions since the corruption at the VA first started to make headlines last spring. In the past few weeks alone, we learned about a VA director who was shaking down widows and vets for money and gifts. We learned that a man who tried to get a cancer screening appointment for a year recently died of cancer. And we learned about a doctor in Wisconsin who has been overprescribing narcotics, enabling addiction and increasing the risks of vets dying from overdoses.

When you read through these headlines, it becomes clear that the VA cannot be fixed. It must be replaced. The current bureaucracy is clearly not up to meeting the needs that three generations of warriors have brought home from the battlefield.

An estimated 30 percent of vets who spent time in war zones have some form of PTSD. VA doctors are prescribing many of them drugs to deal with the symptoms, but too often their poor management of the cases is feeding addiction and, in the worst instances, suicides.

In fact, the suicide rate among recent vets is roughly 50 percent higher than among civilians with similar demographic characteristics, according to a newly released study.

We must do better at helping our veterans deal with their physical, psychological, and emotional wounds.

In the 21st century, we have the capability to give our veterans the very best medicine that technology has to offer. And, as it turns out, many veterans may already have one of the most important components of the VA of the future right in their pockets.

In his new book, "The Patient Will See You Now," Dr. Eric Topol, one of the nation’s leading thinkers on the future of medicine, describes how smartphones have the potential to return power to patients rather than the large bureaucratic systems that treat them today.

"With innovative digital technologies, cloud computing, and machine learning," he describes in The Wall Street Journal, "the medicalized smartphone is going to upend every aspect of health care. And the end result is you, the patient, are about to take center stage for the first time."

If we ignore the bureaucratic assumptions of the current VA and consider how to replace it with a 21st century veterans service system, the breakthroughs Dr. Topol describes create some incredible opportunities.

For one thing, a system centered on veterans and their smartphones could never engage in the kind of corruption we have seen in VA scheduling practices. Veterans with access to their own records on their own smartphones could be more involved in their care and would be able to track the progress of their health conditions. They would no longer be at the mercy of a bureaucracy that controls all of their medical records.

Many of the lapses in care at the VA have been delays for tests or face-to-face visits with a doctor. But Topol describes how smartphones might soon replace visits to the doctor altogether. "Smartphones already can be used to take blood-pressure readings or even do an electrocardiogram," he says in one example. "ECG apps have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for consumers and validated in many clinical studies. The apps' data are immediately analyzed, graphed, displayed on-screen updated with new measurements, stored and (at an individual’s discretion) shared."

Smartphone-based sensors for most other vital signs already exist, and dozens of more tests are on the way. Using tools like these and secure video links, Topol predicts, "virtual physician visits (replacing physical office visits) will soon become the norm."

Smartphones could have enormous implications for how we treat veterans with mental health challenges, as well. Indeed, Topol writes, "Smartphones can be particularly helpful here." He points to new apps that "aim to quantify your state of mind by a composite of real-time data: tone and inflection of voice, facial expression, breathing pattern, heart rate, galvanic skin response, blood pressure, even the frequency and content of your emails and texts."

And it turns out that in some circumstances, virtual psychiatrists can provide unique benefits, in part because patients are more comfortable being honest with them than they are with real ones.

While computers are certainly not a substitute for human doctors, imagine how technologies might one day benefit the one third of vets suffering from some form of PTSD.

Breakthroughs like those Dr. Topol describes hold the potential to empower veterans by using their smartphones to re-center services on their lives and at their convenience, which, after all, should be the metrics of true progress for our veterans.

When the VA starts stripping away layers of bureaucracy rather than adding to them, and the veteran rather than the bureaucrat or hospital director is in control, it will be an enormous achievement and a step toward making good on our promises to America’s veterans.

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The failed VA bureaucracy President Obama claims to have fixed address remains entirely intact. But Dr. Eric Topol, in "The Patient Will See You Now," points the way to a true fix — the smartphone, which has the potential to take power from the bureaucratic systems and return it to patients.
Newt Gingrich, veterans, care, smartphones, va, Eric Topol
Monday, 02 February 2015 08:10 AM
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