RHINELANDER - Handling his two young children during a yearly checkup might have added to the stress of going to the doctor, but Adam Zietlow looked forward to his appointment at the VA clinic on Kemp Street in Rhinelander.
"Seeing it come around, it's pretty exciting," Zietlow said.
The Marine Corps veteran got checked in by nurse Emily Marheine, then turned to a computer monitor to say hi to his doctor; a man who was 340 miles away.
"We still have good communication and it's pretty much like a normal visit other than he just happens to be in Chicago and I'm in Rhinelander," Zietlow said.
Dr. Ravinder Nath works out of the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center, but is the exclusive telehealth provider for the Rhinelander VA clinic. The only on-site physician retired last July, leaving a void in the Northwoods.
Through a high-speed internet connection, Nath can listen to a patient's heart and lungs, look in their ears, nose, and throat, and help treat chronic conditions all in real time.
"For me, it's very satisfying, but for patients, you've got to ask the patients how satisfied they are," Nath told Newswatch 12 via the videa feed.
More and more patients seem to be. Advanced Medical Support Assistant Nicole Brown helped schedule more than 2,600 telehealth appointments in Rhinelander in 2018. The clinic had 425 telehealth appointments in April of this year. Brown helps nervous patients understand the system.
"Some people are at first. We just ask that they try it," Brown explained.
Licensed practical nurse Marheine says the system is reliable, too. Not a single appointment was canceled due to technical issues since Dr. Nath came on board in October 2018.
Patients always have the right to say "no" to a telehealth appointment, but sometimes that means needing to travel to places like Iron Mountain or Milwaukee to see a physician.
"Face-to-face is obviously something that you can't ever really discount, but by doing it this way, we're saving our veterans money," Marheine said.
It could also save the VA the trouble of finding doctors to move and stay in the Northwoods, an issue many medical providers face. Zietlow is happy to stay where he is and plans to tell other veterans they should look forward to their own telehealth appointments.
"It's the same standard and same level of care, that I think they might actually come to appreciate it more," Zietlow said.
Telehealth appointments have increased nearly five times in the 10 years since the VA started using them in 2008. Dr. Nath says he has been "pleasantly surprised" by the technology, but stresses it's a compliment to traditional healthcare.
"I don't know what happens 100 years from now, but in foreseeable future, I can't image face-to-face making a complete exit," Nath said.
The VA also offers patients the ability to see their physician via a smartphone, tablet or laptop at home.