Original Research

Trauma-Informed Telehealth in the COVID-19 Era and Beyond

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Background: The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) entered the COVID-19 pandemic crisis with an existing and robust telehealth program, but it still faces a fundamental paradigm shift as most routine outpatient in-person care was converted to telehealth visits. Veterans are a highly trauma-exposed population, and VHA has long offered effective telemental health services. Natural disasters and pandemics like COVID-19 are known to be traumatic. Those with preexisting trauma exposure and mental health conditions are often at greater risk than the general population for long-term adverse health sequelae. Application of trauma-informed principles to telehealth care is critical and timely.

Observations: Trauma-focused care (including telemental health) refers to evidence-based treatment models that directly facilitate recovery from trauma-related conditions like posttraumatic stress disorder. Despite the widespread availability of trauma-focused treatment in VHA, not all veterans chose to engage in it. In contrast, trauma-informed care (TIC) is a global, “universal precautions” approach to providing strengths-based, collaborative quality medical care in any discipline or location. In this article the authors, all primary care and mental health clinicians at VHA, advocate for the application of the 6 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration principles of trauma-informed care to telehealth. Using examples from telehealth research conducted in trauma-exposed patient populations, we illustrate the characteristics of telehealth that are well suited to delivery of trauma-informed care and suggest readily applicable strategies that can be used across disciplines including primary care and medical/surgical specialties. A primary care patient case scenario is included to illustrate how telehealth visits can be trauma-informed.

Conclusions: Telehealth expansion has occurred nationally out of necessity during the COVID-19 pandemic. Trauma-informed virtual care has the potential to ensure and even expand continuity of medical care by fostering safe and collaborative interactions between patients and the health care team.


 

References

COVID-19 has created stressors that are unprecedented in our modern era, prompting health care systems to adapt rapidly. Demand for telehealth has skyrocketed, and clinicians, many of whom had planned to adopt virtual practices in the future, have been pressured to do so immediately.1 In March 2020, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) expanded telehealth services, removing many barriers to virtual care.2 Similar remedy was not necessary for the Veterans Health Administration (VHA) which reported more than 2.6 million episodes of telehealth care in 2019.3 By the time the pandemic was underway in the US, use of telehealth was widespread across the agency. In late March 2020, VHA released a COVID-19 Response Plan, in which telehealth played a critical role in safe, uninterrupted delivery of services.4 While telehealth has been widely used in VHA, the call for replacement of most in-person outpatient visits with telehealth visits was a fundamental paradigm shift for many patients and clinicians.4

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (HR 748) gave the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) funding to expand coronavirus-related telehealth services, including the purchase of mobile devices and broadband expansion. CARES authorized the agency to expand telemental health services, enter into short-term agreements with telecommunications companies to provide temporary broadband services to veterans, temporarily waived an in-person home visit requirement (accepting video and phone calls as an alternative), and provided means to make telehealth available for homeless veterans and case managers through the HUD-VASH (US Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing) program.

VHA is a national telehealth exemplar, initiating telehealth by use of closed-circuit televisions as early as 1968, and continuing to expand through 2017 with the implementation of the Veterans Video Connect (VVC) platform.5 VVC has enabled veterans to participate in virtual visits from distant locations, including their homes. VVC was used successfully during hurricanes Sandy, Harvey, Irma, and Maria and is being widely deployed in the current crisis.6-8

While telehealth can take many forms, the current discussion will focus on live (synchronous) videoconferencing: a 2-way audiovisual link between a patient and clinician, such as VVC, which enables patients to maintain a safe and social distance from others while connecting with the health care team and receiving urgent as well as ongoing medical care for both new and established conditions.9 VHA has developed multiple training resources for use of VVC across many settings, including primary care, mental health, and specialties. In this review, we will make the novel case for applying a trauma-informed lens to telehealth care across VHA and beyond to other health care systems.

Trauma-Informed Care

Although our current focus is rightly on mitigating the health effects of a pandemic, we must recognize that stressful phenomena like COVID-19 occur against a backdrop of widespread physical, sexual, psychological, and racial trauma in our communities. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) describes trauma as resulting from “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”10 Trauma exposure is both ubiquitous worldwide and inequitably distributed, with vulnerable populations disproportionately impacted.11,12

Veterans as a population are often highly trauma exposed, and while VHA routinely screens for experiences of trauma, such as military sexual trauma (MST) and intimate partner violence (IPV), and potential mental health sequelae of trauma, including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicidality, veterans may experience other forms of trauma or be unwilling or unable to talk about past exposures.13 One common example is that of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which include household dysfunction, neglect, and physical and sexual abuse before the age of 18 years.14 ACEs have been associated with a wide range of risk behaviors and poor health outcomes in adulthood.14 In population-based data, both male and female veterans have reported higher ACE scores.15 In addition, ACE scores are higher overall for those serving in the all-volunteer era (after July 1, 1973).16 Because trauma may be unseen, unmeasured, and unnamed, it is important to deliver all medical care with sensitivity to its potential presence.

It is important to distinguish the concept of trauma-informed care (TIC) from trauma-focused services. Trauma-focused or trauma-specific treatment refers to evidence-based and best practice treatment models that have been proven to facilitate recovery from problems resulting from the experience of trauma, such as PTSD.17 These treatments directly address the emotional, behavioral, and physiologic impact of trauma on an individual’s life and facilitate improvement in related symptoms and functioning: They are designed to treat the consequences of trauma. VHA offers a wide range of trauma-specific treatments, and considerable experience in delivering evidence-based trauma-focused treatment through telehealth exists.18,19 Given the range of possible responses to the experience of trauma, not all veterans with trauma histories need to, chose to, or feel ready to access trauma-specific treatments.20

In contrast, TIC is a global, universal precautions approach to providing quality care that can be applied to all aspects of health care and to all patients.21 TIC is a strengths-based service delivery framework that is grounded in an understanding of, and responsiveness to, the disempowering impact of experiencing trauma. It seeks to maximize physical, psychological, and emotional safety in all health care encounters, not just those that are specifically trauma-focused, and creates opportunities to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment while fostering healing through safe and collaborative patient-clinician relationships.22 TIC is not accomplished through any single technique or checklist but through continuous appraisal of approaches to care delivery. SAMHSA has elucidated 6 fundamental principles of TIC: safety; trustworthiness and transparency; peer support; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment; voice and choice; and sensitivity to cultural, historical, and gender issues.10

TIC is based on the understanding that often traditional service delivery models of care may trigger, silence, or disempower survivors of trauma, exacerbating physical and mental health symptoms and potentially increasing disengagement from care and poorer outcomes.23 Currier and colleagues aptly noted, “TIC assumes that trustworthiness is not something that an organization creates in a veteran client, but something that he or she will freely grant to an organization.”24 Given the global prevalence of trauma, its well-established and deleterious impact on lifelong health, and the potential for health care itself to be traumatizing, TIC is a fundamental construct to apply universally with any patient at any time, especially in the context of a large-scale community trauma, such as a pandemic.12

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